Definition. Diversion programs are designed to redirect status offenders and nonoffenders away from formal court processing, but still hold them accountable for their actions. In some cases, the programs secure services for the diverted youth. These services are a specialized subset of interventions that typically target youth who are at risk and/or have been arrested or referred to juvenile court for status offenses or nonserious delinquent offenses. In the latter instance, jurisdictions use diversion in lieu of formal court processing.
Diversion practices vary in terms of the juvenile justice contact point at which the youth is diverted, and the types of services provided. Juveniles may be diverted by law enforcement before arrest, or diversion may take place during court intake, or even after adjudication but before disposition (Roush, 1996). Depending on the point at which youths are diverted, a diversion program may involve outright release with minimal services, referral to a community agency, or direct provision of services.
Brief Literature Review. Shelden (1999) notes that “[t]he concept of diversion is based on the theory that processing certain youth through the juvenile justice system may do more harm than good” (as cited in Lundman, 2001). Evaluations of diversion programs have produced varied results. Although some studies have shown that diversion programs are successful in reducing subsequent deviance (Shelden, 1999; Krisberg and Austin, 1993; Davidson et al., 1990), as many have shown no impact, and some programs have even been shown to have a negative impact. Early studies (Elliott and Blanchard, 1975; Klein, 1976) found little or no difference in recidivism between diverted and nondiverted youth. Some research suggests that diversion actually increases recidivism (Lincoln, 1976). Others have found that interventions, regardless of the setting, increase perceived labeling and self-reported delinquency among youth (Elliott, Dunford, and Knowles, 1978; Lincoln, 1976; and Lipsey, Cordray, and Berger, 1981). Consistent with this last group of findings is later work by Edwin Lemert (1981) suggesting that even treatment interventions can impose stigma on youth and lead to secondary deviance. This later work raised the possibility that such programs may “widen the net” of the State system, taking in youth who otherwise might never have come into contact with the system. Many of the studies cited, however, may have been flawed by difficulties researchers encountered in constructing comparison groups for evaluation purposes (Liska, 1987).
More recent studies on diversion programs have yielded more positive results. For example, the Detention Diversion Advocacy Project (DDAP) found that diverted youths were less likely than their counterparts to be referred to court for a new offense, to go before a judge for actual adjudication, or to be referred to out-of-home placement (Shelden, 1999). Although research is needed to determine the components of an effective diversion program, Dryfoos (1990) and Shelden (1999) argue that the most successful programs are those that provide intensive, comprehensive services over an extended period of time, coupled with placement in community-based programs. Shelden also points out the following factors as contributing to DDAP’s success: caseworkers’ small caseloads, the program’s location outside the mainstream of the juvenile justice system, the program’s physical accessibility, and benefits of intensive supervision (e.g., caseworkers’ ability to deflect potential problems and help clients avoid arrest). There is a clear need for more rigorous diversion research conducted on current youth populations.
See Literature Review: Diversion.