While it is recognized that some youth commit serious offenses and may need to be confined within a secure setting, research has shown that many youth in the juvenile justice system are there for relatively minor offenses, have significant mental health issues, and end up in out-of-home placement or on probation by default.1 Diversion programs are alternatives to initial or continued formal processing of youth in the juvenile delinquency system.
The purpose of diversion programs is to redirect youthful offenders from the justice system through programming, supervision, and supports. Arguments that support diversion programs include the following:
- Diverting youth who have committed minor offenses away from the system and towards community-based treatment and support options is a more appropriate response than confinement, and a more productive way of addressing and preventing future delinquency.2
- Formally processing youth through the juvenile justice system does more harm than good by perpetuating delinquency through ”labeling” and exposing youth to circumstances within juvenile and adult correctional institutions that may actually increase delinquency.3
Diversion programs are typically designed to provide youth with experiences that are different from traditional juvenile justice experiences. Diversion decisions and activities usually occur at the earliest stages of involvement in the juvenile justice system; however, diversion initiatives can be put in place at later stages of justice processing with the primary goal of reducing costly out-of-home placements.
The structure and operation of diversion programs vary, but the overall goals are typically the same: namely, to address delinquent behavior informally in the community in an effort to prevent subsequent offending.4 Some diversion programs are established to provide specialized programs to better meet the needs of youth with mental health and/or substance abuse concerns. Typical services provided for youth and families in diversion programs include one or more of the following:
- Screening and assessment
- Education and tutorial services
- Victim awareness classes and activities
- Service learning programs
- Substance use education and counseling
- Job skills training
- Mental health treatment
- Crisis intervention
- Family counseling
- Parenting skill development
- Supports for rebuilding family relationships
- Quality recreation and organized sports programs
According to the National Center on Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, services delivered through diversion programs typically occur in the community either on school campuses, on community sites, or in the youth’s home.
The benefits of diversion programs have been well documented. Four of the major benefits of successful diversion programs are
- a reduction of premature involvement in the “deep end” of the juvenile delinquency system;
- a reduction in out-of-home placements, especially for younger children;
- maintaining youth connectedness and engagement in the community by keeping the youth in his/her environment; and
- a reduction in cost compared to court processing and/or secure placement.5
Diversion can be an integral part of any jurisdiction’s graduated continuum of options for youth already involved or at risk of becoming involved with the juvenile justice system.
1 Skowyra & Powell, 2006
2 Shelden, 1999
3 Shelden, 1999
4 Stewart, 2008
5 Dembo, Wareham, & Schmeidler, 2005