Navigating Youth Diversion: Strategies, Pitfalls, and Impact

Navigating Youth Diversion: Strategies, Pitfalls, and Impact

Diversion helps youth who have offended as it offers tailored interventions for their needs, counters adverse effects of formal processing, and promotes rehabilitation over punishment. In this blog we explore diverse diversion strategies, how these strategies balance rehabilitation and accountability, and the importance of fair decision-making for positive individual and societal outcomes.

What is diversion?

As the name suggests, diversion is generally considered to divert people from involvement in police- or justice systems (Hoge et al., 2012). In addition to being used to prevent people from entering the system in the first place, diversion can also be a part of processing decisions (Hobbs et al., 2013). In other words, diversion can happen at different stages throughout police and justice systems, such as pre-charge or post-charge stages, or in court through alternative sentencing.

Unstructured diversion without additional intervention can look like a caution, reprimand, or warning. In contrast, more structured diversion includes formal types of intervention, such as nonjudicial alternative programs which serve specific reparative, restorative, rehabilitative, or restrictive aims (Gaffney et al., 2021; Wilson, 2012). Although diversion can take many shapes and forms, it generally encourages the avoidance or reduction of justice system processing (Wilson, 2012). In this light, diversion addresses one or more of the following goals: delinquency or recidivism reduction, increased system efficiency, or cost reduction (Cocozza et al., 2005).

However, competing aims in justice systems, such as between accountability and rehabilitative needs, can make diversion decision-making difficult. Rehabilitation and recidivism reduction are important but are not the only aims of the justice system. The proportionality principle requires that punishment aligns with the seriousness of the offense as well as the person’s degree of responsibility for that offense (Maurutto et al., 2007) and will often outweigh other sentencing principles or aims.

Why is diversion important in youth justice systems?

Rehabilitation is important in youth justice systems because it is considered more effective and humane than strategies that focus heavily on punishment and retribution (Maurutto et al., 2007). The reason for this is twofold:

  • Children and adolescents are less able to gauge risks and consequences, control impulses, handle stress, and resist peer pressure than adults. Therefore, many youths who behave delinquently during adolescence will stop engaging in this behavior as they mature (Hobbs et al., 2013).
  • Youth in police or justice systems are likely to experience unintended consequences of formal processing. These consequences relate to learning antisocial behavior from other youth and the stigmatization of being labeled as delinquent, which increase the likelihood of future offending (Rufino, 2018). Diversion programs should, by design, enable low- or moderate-risk youth to avoid these unintended consequences of formal processing.

Two influential theories help explain the unintended consequences of formal justice system processing.

  • Labeling theory suggests that youth who have been in contact with the justice system internalize the label that they have received (of an offender or delinquent) and will behave in ways that align with this label.
  • Differential association theory suggests that criminal behavior requires a combination of criminal attitudes, motivations, and techniques, which someone can learn when exposed to criminal norms (Wilson, 2012). In other words, youth may be more likely to behave delinquently when surrounded by people who display criminal behavior.

Theories regarding the unintended consequences of formal justice system processing have, to some extent, been supported by research. In a meta-analysis that combined the findings of 27 studies over 35 years, Petrosino and colleagues (2010) found that the formal processing of young people through the justice system had negative consequences and did not provide a public safety benefit. The authors found no evidence that juvenile system processing had a crime control effect, and, in fact, most analyses showed that processing increased delinquency. However, research on the success of diversion has produced mixed results and it can be difficult to draw conclusions because diversion programs come in many shapes and forms. As a result, conflicting findings may be related to differences in the quality of programming.

When combining the observation that most youth will stop behaving delinquently without intervention with the potential negative effects of youth justice system involvement, it is intuitive that justice systems would want to differentiate between youth who require legal intervention and youth who would benefit from community-based intervention or no treatment at all (Hobbs et al., 2013). By dedicating fewer intervention services to youth who are unlikely to re-offend, services and resources can be strategically directed to youth who are at a higher risk of re-entering the justice system (Cocozza, 2005).

The Role of the Risk-Need-Responsivity Model

As suggested above, diversion services can be matched to a person’s specific risks and needs. In other words, instead of using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to create diversion programs based on, for example, the type of offending, diversion initiatives can use the Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model to implement diversion plans that address a youth’s specific risks and needs (Bonta & Andrews, 2007; Wylie et al., 2019).

For a more detailed explanation of the RNR model, please see: Professional Judgment and Overrides in Risk/Needs Assessments

Diversion decisions are important decisions for both the young person and society, and the quality of the information and conclusions are critical to ensure that fair and effective decisions are made (Hoge, 2012). These decisions are often made informally, based on the professional judgment of police or prosecutors. Structured assessment procedures can be used to assess risk and need factors that can help inform the development of a formal intervention program (Hoge, 2012). Risk/needs assessment tools that adhere to the RNR model can provide a structured way of assessing information about the level of risk for reoffending, specific needs areas to be addressed in diversion programming, as well as responsivity factors that require consideration for effective programming decisions (Hoge, 2012). Programs that provide individualized youth diversion plans informed by a validated risk/needs assessment have been found to be more effective at reducing future system involvement because the youth’s specific risks and needs are being targeted (Rufino et al., 2018).

The Youth Level of Service/Case Management InventoryTM (YLS/CMITM; Hoge & Andrews, 2006 ) and its successor, the Youth Level of Service/Case Management InventoryTM 2.0 (YLS/CMITM 2.0; Hoge & Andrews, 2011), are risk/needs assessment tools based on the RNR model and have therefore played a role in some of the research on the effectiveness of RNR informed diversion programming. Campbell and colleagues (2014), for example, found that using the YLS/CMI aids the strategy of diverting low-risk youth to informal probation or out of the system entirely. It is important to underline that the Youth Level of Service tools can help aid a diversion strategy by informing diversion programming and are just one piece of the puzzle regarding diversion decision-making.

An extensive review of the diversion research that included Youth Level of Service tools is beyond the scope of this blog post, but please refer to the following sources in the reference list for further information: Cocozza et al., 2005 (Florida); Hobbs et al., 2013 (Nebraska); Onifade et al., 2011 (a mid-sized county in the Midwest); Vincent et al., 2013 (Louisiana & Pennsylvania); Wilson et al., 2012 (Ottawa); Wylie et al., 2019 (a large Midwestern city). In general, the research findings support the use of the RNR model by confirming that low-risk youth who have offended require less intensive and resource-expensive service options.

Fairness in Diversion Decision-Making

While there is theoretical scholarship about the importance of fair decision-making and equal opportunity to participate in diversion programs, it would be helpful to have more empirical research to understand how bias might affect diversion decisions. For example, two of the studies above found discrepancies when comparing youth diversion decision-making across ethnicities (Hobbs et al., 2013; Rufino et al., 2018). Additionally, specific types of offending, such as violent offending (Onifade et al., 2011) and drug and alcohol offending (Hobbs et al., 2013), have been found to result in more formal system involvement decision-making that did not align with risk/needs assessment information or recidivism information. It is critical to ensure there is equal opportunity to enroll and succeed in diversion programs. Other fairness considerations that require further research attention relate to the cost of participation, burdensome program requirements, or time commitments that make participation unfeasible, including transportation problems and language barriers (Hobbs et al., 2013). To summarize, there is a need for further research to assess fairness in diversion decision-making.

Informed diversion and effective programming are needed

Most young people will stop offending without intervention as they mature, and there are negative consequences related to formal justice system involvement. It, therefore, makes sense to divert youth who are unlikely to re-offend. Diversion programs, and community programs in particular, are more effective when adhering to RNR principles (Harris et al., 2022). Risk/needs assessments that adhere to the RNR model can help inform diversion programming but must be used responsibly to help inform the bigger picture.

Justice system responses to delinquency aim to repair harm caused, protect the public, and rehabilitate the person who has offended (Onifade et al., 2011). The proportionality principle will inform sentencing decisions, but insights obtained from adherence to the RNR model can help inform programming decisions that set young people up for success. If done well, this approach addresses the system’s aims of protecting the public and rehabilitating the young person while also resulting in cost savings by dedicating the most intensive resources to the youth who need them the most.

Have questions or comments about this blog? Get in touch, email us at [email protected].


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