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OJJDP News @ a Glance February 2024

Diversion Programs Offer Treatment While Keeping Youth Out of the Justice System

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Youth who engage in delinquent behavior may face lasting consequences—including a criminal record—even for first-time offenses. Diversion programs offer youth access to community-based services, offering a path to treatment that helps to keep them from entering the juvenile justice system. For states and localities, youth diversion programs can help to reduce reoffending and increase public safety. 

By providing age-appropriate, tailored interventions and services that connect youth to resources in the community, diversion programs can achieve OJJDP’s priorities for transforming the juvenile justice system—treating children as children; serving children at home, with their families, in their communities; and opening up opportunities for system-involved youth.

Jurisdictions have reported significant reductions in criminal referrals after launching pre-file youth diversion programs. In South Dakota, the state’s Juvenile Justice Public Safety Improvement Act, enacted in 2015, calls for jurisdictions to expand their use of diversion. Since starting a program in September 2019, Brown County has experienced a 25-percent drop in juvenile petitions filed with the Fifth Judicial Circuit, according to Kelsi Vinger, diversion coordinator for the county’s state’s attorney. The 3-year recidivism rate for participants is 8 percent. “In our small jurisdiction, we have kept over 300 kids out of the court system” over 4 years, she said. “It is our true belief that [the program] is working.” 

Prosecutors lead the Brown County program, which was originally funded by the federal Title II Formula Grants program but is now fully funded by the county. Youth attend the program for 4 months, receiving treatment and other services free of charge, primarily through community mental health centers. In accordance with the 2015 state law, the diversion program is available for youth arrested for a misdemeanor who have not been adjudicated previously and have not been diverted in the past 12 months. The law encourages localities to offer diversion to youth who commit status offenses and nonviolent misdemeanors; in Brown County, youth who commit nonviolent felonies are also eligible, Ms. Vinger said.

In California, the San Diego County District Attorney launched a youth diversion program in 2021 to address the underlying causes of behavior that lead to youth arrests and reduce the number of young people who enter the juvenile justice system, said Lisa Weinreb, chief of the office’s Juvenile Branch. Program participants undergo risk assessments and receive free services targeted to their top needs. All youth receive an educational advocate, cognitive behavioral therapy, and mentoring, and attend prosocial activities and skills-building classes. The program is run by the National Conflict Resolution Center, which subcontracts with more than 30 culturally competent community-based organizations in neighborhoods throughout the county. Relying on a third-party provider and community-based groups is critical in building trust with youth and their families, Ms. Weinreb said. 

Youth attend the San Diego program for 6 months. Near the end of the program, people harmed by the crime are invited to participate in a restorative justice circle, where youth are encouraged to offer restitution. When that is not possible, the circle suggests alternative actions. In some cases, victims apply for compensation from a restitution fund set up by the National Conflict Resolution Center.


OJJDP’s Addressing the Training Needs of Juvenile Prosecutors program—a partnership with the National District Attorneys Association—provides training and technical assistance to youth prosecutors and their staff, helping them pursue diversion and other strategies to reduce offending and improve outcomes for youth and communities. With OJJDP support, the association hosted several webinars discussing youth diversion programs. A January 2024 event explored North Carolina’s juvenile justice system and a December 2023 webinar focused on restorative justice. 

OJJDP’s Model Programs Guide includes a literature review on youth diversion. 

Date Created: February 26, 2024