Diversion Programs: Do Supportive Research

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  • Overview

    StartDiversion programs allow youths who commit offenses to be directed away from more formal juvenile justice system involvement. Types of diversion programs include (but are not limited to):

    • teen/youth courts;
    • restorative justice programs;
    • mental health courts;
    • mentoring;
    • community-based programs and services; and
    • family-based programs.
    Given this wide variety of programming, it is important to research different diversion programs and practices before choosing which program is the best fit for your community. To do this, you should identify the core components of a program, and consider developmentally appropriate and culturally competent services. The decision-making process should also be guided by an acknowledgement of the issues surrounding diversion efforts, including the criticisms of diversion.

    There are many ways to research diversion interventions, including: 1) conducting searches on clearinghouses such as the Model Programs Guide (MPG), 2) conducting Internet searches to find available diversion resources, 3) speaking with others who have implemented diversion programs, 4) partnering with local colleges or universities who have a juvenile justice school or center, and 5) attending national or state sponsored conferences on juvenile justice.

    This section provides information about background research you should do to make well-informed decisions about the type of diversion program and services you should implement to address your community’s needs. There is information about the various resources you can use and specific issues regarding diversion, which will give you an accurate picture of what diversion programming involves and what you need to know to make sure your implementation process is successful.

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  • Steps to Take: Lessons Learned from the Research

    Steps to Take:  Lessons Learned from the Research

    Understand diversion.

    • Determine the specific type of diversion program you wish to implement.
    • Identify the core components of diversion programs.
    • Consider developmentally appropriate, culturally competent, and gender-specific services and approaches.
    • Consider specific programming for youths with mental health needs.
    • Acknowledge the criticism surrounding certain types of diversion programs.

    Search for evidence-based diversion programs on clearinghouses.

    • Explore the evidence-based diversion programs featured on the MPG.
    • Recognize the importance of including a risk/needs assessment in diversion programming and select an evidence-informed assessment tool.

    Search other sources for information on diversion.

    • Explore websites and resources available from juvenile justice-related organizations.
    • Talk with someone who has implemented a diversion program.
    • Understand Diversion

      As there is an extensive amount of research on diversion and the different types of diversion programs, it can be difficult to be well-versed on this topic. However, it is still important to conduct background research to understand the intricacies of implementing a diversion program. Such research should include a broad understanding of diversion, an understanding of the specific type of diversion program you wish to implement, and a general understanding of the critical issues that surround the topic of diversion.

      • Determine the specific type of diversion program you wish to implement. Because diversion programs can vary in terms of points of contact, setting, target population, and form of intervention or services delivered, you will also need to look at the specific research and information available on the particular type of diversion program that could be implemented in your jurisdiction. The literature reviews on the MPG provide background information on different diversion programs (see Find Research Results Fast sidebar for more information).

        There are many factors to consider when selecting a program to implement, including the setting, available resources, and target population. For example, programs such as Reading for Life (RFL) and Indianapolis Family Group Conferencing Experiment are likely better to implement for juveniles who have committed first-time, nonviolent offenses. In contrast, the Front-End Diversion Initiative (FEDI) and the Special Needs Diversionary Program (SNDP) were designed to specifically target youths who had committed various offenses and were diagnosed with mental health illnesses (for more information on target populations, see Establish Clear Program Goals).

      • Identify the core components of diversion programs. While diversion programs share similar goals of processing youths away from formal system processing, the nature of these efforts differ based on the type of program that is implemented. Many differences can be found across the following six main components:

        1) Point of contact: the contact point of method of entry into the juvenile justice system, ranging from arrest to adjudication

        2) Setting: justice or non-justice settings

        3) Structure: specific conditions and responsibilities that youths must follow to enter and remain in the program

        4) Target population: which specific youths will be targeted by the program, based on age, offense type, or other criteria

        5) Type of intervention: the primary form of the intervention or service provided such as behavior modification, community service activities, or restitution

        6) Formal or informal processing: informal programs such as caution/warn-and-release programs or formal programs that have both a justice component and service component.

        (For more information about the six components, check out the MPG literature review on Diversion from Formal Juvenile Court Processing). Identifying these core components of a program will help you assess a program’s fit and ensure you select a program that will address the specific needs of your community and the targeted youths (for more information about determining your community’s needs, see Conduct a Needs Assessment).

        For example, the Juvenile Breaking the Cycle program has three core components: 1) judicial oversight (setting); 2) urinalysis testing (structure); and 3) substance use and mental health services treatment (type of intervention).

        For the SNAP Under 12 Outreach Project, the primary components include: 1) targeting at-risk boys displaying aggression and antisocial behavior (target population); 2) community-based programming (setting); 3) mentoring, group therapy, parent training, and continued care (type of intervention); and 4) referrals from police, schools, child welfare, and parents (points of contacts).

        For Reading for Life (RFL), the main components are: 1) targeting juveniles who committed nonviolent offenses (target population); 2) small reading groups (type of intervention); and 3) having the juvenile record expunged after 1 year if no other offenses are committed (formal processing).

      • Consider developmentally appropriate, culturally competent, and gender-specific services and approaches. The choice to implement a diversion plan even in its simplest form (warn-and-release) is grounded in research that supports taking a developmental approach to juvenile justice. In other words, diversion programs recognize that risk-taking and rule-breaking are normal adolescent developmental behaviors, and that low-risk youths are poorly served by formal processing.

        However, when diversion programs include a more comprehensive set of community-based services, communities need to consider other factors that will impact treatment such as:
        • age (what works for a 12-year-old may not work for a 17-year-old);
        • gender (what works for boys may not work for girls);
        • the specific needs of youths (e.g., mental health or substance use issues);
        • youths’ disabilities (such as developmental and learning disabilities);
        • education status (e.g., grade level, numbers of absences);
        • involvement of family members; and
        • history of trauma or exposure to violence.
        Culturally competent programming should also be considered when looking at diversion programming and service options. Communities should remember the culturally diverse populations they serve and how this may impact diversion efforts. For example, depending on their cultural background (race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc.), youths and their families may be skeptical of the justice system and be hesitant about voluntarily participating in diversion programming. Some programs have been developed to work with specific racial and ethnic populations or have focused on issues primarily related to girls or to boys. An example of a program that specifically targets African American youth is the Community Connections Partnership, which was developed to use culturally specific (i.e., Afrocentric) treatments and interventions to reduce the number of minority youths being committed to the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

        Similarly, gender-specific programming should also be considered. An example of a program that specifically targets females is the Hawaii Girls Court. This program was one of the first courts in the nation to provide gender-specific programming designed to meet the needs and develop the strengths of female juveniles who commit offenses and their families. The Girls Court uses gender-responsive programming to achieve its primary goals: to give visibility to girls, to develop a program that will meet their specific needs, and to minimize the use of detainment and commitment.

      • Consider specific programming for youths with mental health needs. Research has suggested as many as 70 percent of youths in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health problem. Formal system processing or traditional juvenile supervision strategies may not adequately address the specific needs of youths with mental health issues. Therefore, diverting them to appropriate treatment and services in the community may be an approach you wish to consider. An example of a program specifically designed to provide specialized programming for diverted juveniles with mental health issues is the Special Needs Diversionary Program (SNDP). SNDP provides mental health treatment in conjunction with specialized probation supervision to juveniles who display low levels of conduct and mental health disorders, with the aim of rehabilitating and preventing them from falling further into the criminal justice system.

      Take a Look

      There are two reports available from the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice (NCHMJJ) that provide information about implementing a diversion program for youths with mental health issues.

      • Acknowledge the criticism surrounding certain types of diversion programs. Although diversion programs provide an opportunity to redirect youths away from formal processing in the juvenile justice system while still holding them accountable for their actions, certain limitations should be acknowledged and understood. By understanding the limitations of diversion, you can address these limitations early so that they do not hinder implementation later on.

        For example, one issue in diversion is the problem of net widening. This refers to the idea that many youths who commit minor offenses would probably have been released from the system, prior to the implementation of diversion programming. But once diversion is put into place, more youths may be brought into contact with the justice system and required to attend programs or services. Therefore, it is important to establish a clear set of inclusion criteria and have a specific target population for diversion programming, so that low-risk juveniles do not get inadvertently caught up in the justice system (for more information about developing inclusion criteria and target populations, see Establish Clear Program Goals).

        Additionally, diversion programs may also lead to disproportionate minority contact (DMC) or the disparate representation of minority youths in the juvenile justice system. Data has shown that minority youth are more likely than white youths to be arrested and subsequently go deeper into the juvenile justice system. For example, while white youths are less likely to be arrested, they have a higher diversion rate compared with black youth. These racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice may be caused by a variety of factors, including but not limited to minority youth living in jurisdictions with higher levels of surveillance (e.g., policing, CCTV), which makes it more likely they will be arrested or detained; or the differential processing of minority youth, where the criteria used to make decisions are not applied consistently across all groups of youth or the criteria is structured in a way that disadvantages some minority groups.

        Although diversion may lead to DMC, diversion efforts can also include DMC reduction strategies. For example, School House Adjustment Program Enterprise (SHAPE) is a school-based diversion program in Memphis, Tennessee aimed at reducing the number of minority students referred to juvenile court for minor offenses that occurred on school property. Rather than arrest or formal court processing, eligible students are required to attend twelve afterschool sessions on the impact of drugs and violent behavior. Within two years, SHAPE led to a 39.6 percent reduction in referrals to juvenile court and transfers to detention. For more information on racial and ethnic disparities, check out the MPG literature review on Disproportionate Minority Contact.
      • Find Research Results Fast

        Below are three places where you can find consolidated diversion program research results.

        1. The MPG’s diversion programs literature review includes information on recent research, including:

        • Types of diversion programs
        • Theoretical foundation
        • Challenges to diversion implementation
        • Results from program evaluations of diversion programs

        2. The MPG’s also provides literature reviews on

        3. Juvenile Diversion Programs on discusses the various types of diversion programs available and provides a summary of the results from two large analyses.

    • Search for Evidence-Based Programs on Clearinghouses

      Conducting background research is especially important when selecting an evidence-based program to implement. Certain types of research, such as program evaluations, can show whether a specific diversion program was effective at impacting targeted behavioral or system outcomes. However, program evaluations only measure one program at a certain place, during a certain time, and with certain people; therefore, it is important to look at a variety of evaluations of different programs, or multiple evaluations of the same program (if available) to understand the history of what worked or didn’t work for a program. You can find several different evidence-based diversion programs on the MPG.

      • Search the evidence-based diversion programs on the MPG. Click here to view the diversion programs currently listed on the MPG.

        These profiles include information about
        • Program components
        • Methodology and outcomes from evaluations of the program
        • Information on cost and implementation (if available)
        • References of the evaluations that were reviewed and rated to determine a program’s overall rating
        • References to supplemental information about the program
        • Any related practices (featured on
        The information provided on MPG can help you to identify important aspects of a diversion program such as the core program components (target population, setting, structure, etc.), cost information about the program, or contact information about the program developer (if available). However, the MPG is meant as a resource to help identify evidence-based programs. If a program is selected from the MPG, more information will need to be gathered to determine what it will take to implement the program in your community.

      • Recognize the importance of including a risk/needs assessment in diversion programming and select an evidence-informed assessment tool. Risk/needs assessments are part of the structure of a diversion program and help to identify the target population. Risk/needs assessments are standardized tools that help practitioners estimate a youth’s risk of recidivism and identify other factors or needs that, if treated and changed, can reduce the youth’s likelihood of committing another offense. The idea is to match a youth’s risk and needs to community-based programs that can reduce those risks and treat identified needs.

        When deciding whether to divert juveniles from formal system processing, the level of risk (i.e., likelihood of committing another offense) should be determined for each youth. To do so, court personnel should use screening tools and risk assessments to minimize discretion, and thus potential bias, in the process.
        • A screening tool is a brief assessment that can help determine which youth need immediate intervention, and who may require a longer, more thorough assessment. Implementing a screening instrument can ensure that that staff members’ limited time is spent assessing youths who will likely need more attention and treatment.
        • A risk assessment is a more comprehensive review of information of the youth, and takes longer to complete. The instrument should consider risk factors, protective factors, and responsivity factors (check out the MPG literature review on Risk/Needs Assessments for Youths for more information).
        Below are a few examples of various tools used by evidence-based diversion programs.
        • The AMIkids Community-Based Day Treatment Services uses the Positive Achievement Change Tool (PACT), which is a tool used to identify youths’ criminogenic risks and needs. Based on the assessment, youths are assigned to mental health or substance use treatment services (or to both).
        • The Front End Diversion Initiative (FEDI) uses the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument Second Version (MAYSI-2) to identify youths who have committed offenses but may have special mental health needs. The MAYSI-2 helps to determine a youth’s eligibility for the program, and the results are used to develop the initial case plan, if a youth is accepted into the program.
        • Several counties participating in the Adolescent Diversion Project in New York State use the Youth Assessment and Screening Instrument (YASI). The counties usually begin with the YASI short screening tool, and then administer the full-length assessment for youths who initially screen as moderate- and high-risk.

      For general information, the Models for Change initiative has also published a guidebook specifically focused on Risk Assessment in Juvenile Justice, which can also provide important information to consider. There is also a literature review on Risk/Needs Assessments for Youths available on the MPG.

      Other Useful Information...

      For more specific guidance on screening and assessment tools for diversion, please see the Juvenile Diversion Guidebook that was prepared by the Models for Change Juvenile Diversion Workgroup.

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    • Search for Other Resources on Diversion

      There are also other resources that provide helpful information on diversion programs and the implementation process.

      • Explore the websites and resources available from juvenile justice-related organizations. For example, the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice offers a variety of resources on diversion, including policy briefs, webinars, and strategic planning. Similarly, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange provides information on community-based alternatives, which includes information about diversion. Models for Change is an organization focused on systems reforms in the juvenile justice field, and provides information on diversion-related topics as well.
      • Talk with someone who has implemented a diversion program. If possible, take the time to talk with colleagues in other communities who have implemented diversion programs. You may gain valuable knowledge that can help you determine whether a program is right for your community. Some juvenile justice-related organizations offer annual conferences that provide an opportunity to network with individuals from other jurisdictions who may have some insight into starting a diversion program. For example, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, National Council on Crime & Delinquency, and the American Society of Criminology all put on annual conferences that usually include diversion or juvenile court-related presentations.

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