Diversion Programs: Establishing Clear Program Goals

What Do You Want To Change?

  • Overview

    StartDiversion programs may be implemented for different reasons and with different goals in mind. The potential goals for diversion programs are many, and could include:

    • reducing youth recidivism;
    • providing treatment or other services needed by youths and their families;
    • improving outcomes for youths;
    • assuring youths are held accountable for their actions;
    • protecting the community;
    • addressing the victim’s needs;
    • reducing costs to the juvenile justice system;
    • avoiding the effects of labeling; and
    • reducing unnecessary social control over youths.

    Decisions about the goals of diversion programs are likely to lead to different implementation choices. For instance, if the broad goal is to reduce system costs, then a jurisdiction may decide to divert all nonviolent youths who commit first offenses to ensure that resources are available for youths formally processed through the courts.

    Alternatively, if the goal is to divert youths away from the court system, but still hold them accountable for their actions, a jurisdiction may decide to implement a restorative justice diversion program. These programs show youths the consequences of their actions and involve the victims, without formal processing in court.

    As these examples indicate, the goal of a diversion program dictates the program’s components and target population. This is why agreeing on the goals of the diversion program at the beginning of the implementation process is essential. Additionally, determining the program’s goals early will ensure that everyone involved understands and shares the same vision of the program.

    This section provides guidance to help you determine the overall goals of your diversion efforts and strategies to translate those goals into clear policies and procedures to ensure your goals are met.

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  • Steps to Take: Lessons Learned from the Research

    Steps to Take:  Lessons Learned from the Research

    Define the problem and target population.

    • Understand the problems diversion can address.
    • Understand the problems diversion cannot address.
    • Define the target population of diversion efforts.

    Develop clear inclusion criteria and completion requirements.

    • Develop well-defined inclusion criteria for diversion and program participation so that practitioners have a clear understanding about who is eligible.
    • Develop clear standards for program completion, so that youths and their families understand the requirements that must be fulfilled for diversion to be successful.
    • Define the Problem and Target Population

      Start by determining the problem you want to target. Is juvenile crime increasing in your area? Are too many youths returning to the criminal justice system following their initial contact? Are you concerned by conventional criminal penalties for juveniles? Do you see a lack of collaboration among the juvenile justice system, substance use treatment providers, educational systems, and other services in your community? Are victims left out of the justice process? Asking these kinds of questions will help you determine whether a diversion program makes sense in your jurisdiction.

      • Understand the problems diversion can address.
      • Many factors can justify starting a juvenile diversion program. Jurisdictions often consider diversion programs to address one or more of these problems:
        • High reoffending rates;
        • Negative consequences associated with a criminal record;
        • High costs of formal processing;
        • Lack of rehabilitative services for youths;
        • Racial disparities; or
        • Lack of services for youth with special needs.
        Given these diverse goals, there are a variety of programs that you may want to consider, each with its own specific focus in promoting juvenile diversion. For instance, one goal of the Adolescent Diversion Program in New York State is to reduce the use of conventional criminal penalties for older adolescents (16- and 17-year-olds) and provide developmentally-appropriate services. Alternatively, a goal of the Adolescent Diversion Project (ADP) in Michigan is to provide arrested youths with community-based services to help them develop prosocial skills and prevent them from formally entering the juvenile justice system. Finally, the Front End Diversion Initiative (FEDI) in Texas aims to increase the cost effectiveness of probation, rehabilitate juveniles with mental health needs, and ensure the successful completion of probation. These examples illustrate how program goals will impact the type of program you implement, the group of youths that are targeted by diversion efforts, and the type of treatment services that may be provided.

      Other Useful Info...

      Warn-and-Release Programs
      In these programs, youths are diverted out of the system with no further action, aside from a warning or formal caution, usually from the police.

      The risk principle suggests that the level of service should match the risk level of the youths who commit offenses, so that highest-risk youths receive the most intensive services and surveillance. The need principle emphasizes targeting criminogenic needs or factors that are associated with criminal or delinquent behavior such as substance use and self-control skills. The responsivity principle suggests that treatment and interventions should be guided by those characteristics of the youth that may affect his or her ability to respond and change such as learning style or motivation (Vincent, Guy, and Grisso 2012).

      • Understand the problems diversion cannot address.
        • Diversion programs need to establish legal sufficiency — that is, they need to determine whether the complaint against a youth falls within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court and whether the allegations can be substantiated. In short, diversion should not become a way to handle cases that should have been dismissed, or this could lead to issues of “net widening” (for more information on net widening, see Do Supportive Research).

        • Diversion programs are also best suited for youths who can be well-served in a community-based context while also maintaining public safety. For example, low-risk youths who commit misdemeanor or status offenses generally require less programming than youths who commit more serious offenses to ensure they do not recidivate (that is, commit another offense). If high-quality services are not available in the community, then diversion will not help moderate- and high-risk youths.
        • Finally, as many state laws require that youths and families consent to participate, diversion programs are not an option in addressing issues for youths who do not consent (or do not have their families’ consent) to participate (for more information about parental involvement, see Get Stakeholder Buy-In).

      • Define the target population of diversion efforts.
        • Diversion programs often specify offense criteria in defining a population of interest. Typically, they serve one or more of the following populations:
          • Juveniles who commit first offenses
          • Juveniles who commit status offenses
          • Juveniles who commit misdemeanor offenses
          • Juveniles who commit nonviolent felonies

        • It is important to select the target population while keeping in mind the identified problem (e.g., recidivism, cost, accountability) and available resources. For instance, if you have very limited available resources, then you might consider a warn-and-release approach for low-risk youths who have committed their first offense (see the sidebar for more information).

        • In selecting the target population, you should also keep in mind the empirical literature. For instance, research has shown that most juveniles who commit their first offenses will not commit another offense. Thus, if your jurisdiction employs an empirically-based risk assessment to determine risk level of youths, then a low-cost diversion approach (such as required community service hours) for low-risk youths may allow your jurisdiction to channel more resources to higher-risk youths (for more information on risk assessments, see Do Supportive Research. See also the MPG literature review on Risk/Needs Assessments for Youths).

        • Alternatively, if your jurisdiction has a history of collaboration among the juvenile justice system, substance use treatment providers, educational systems, and other related service systems, then you may consider including nonviolent moderate- or high-risk youths in diversion programming efforts. This type of coordinated service system, guided by the principles of the Risk–Need–Responsivity (RNR) framework (see the sidebar for more information), may be well-equipped to deliver intensive and tailored services to these youths more so then services provided through traditional court processing. For example, an evaluation of the Adolescent Diversion Program in New York State examined the outcome results by level of risk of program participants. The results showed that, as predicted by the RNR framework, the intervention produced significantly lower rearrest rates for highest-risk youths while also producing higher rearrest rates for lower-risk youths. The results showed that higher-risk youth benefitted more from participation in the program than lower-risk youth, suggesting that less-intensive, lower-cost options may be more appropriate for low-risk youth.
    • Set Program Goals to Determine Which Actions Will Best Divert the Target Population.

      Setting goals can provide direction for diversion efforts, by figuring out which actions will increase appropriate diversion of targeted youths and how success will be measured. Use the information you gathered when defining your problem and target population to develop a SMART framework.

      • Use SMART goals to set clear program goals. According to this framework, goals should be:

        • Specific
        • Measurable
        • Achievable
        • Relevant
        • Time-Bound

        For example, one program goal that follows the SMART goal framework could be as follows: “In the first 6 months of operation, the juvenile diversion program will decrease formal processing of nonviolent youths who commit first offenses by five percent.” This example sets a specific, relevant goal (decreasing formal processing by diverting these youths), which includes a measure to assess progress (the proportion of nonviolent youths who commit first offenses and are formally processed) over a certain amount of time (6-month period).

        In another more specific example, the Clackamas County Juvenile Drug Court (JDC) set the following goals: 1) reduce recidivism, 2) reduce drug and alcohol use, and 3) increase family functioning. The goals were met by changing youths’ perceptions of drug use and improving family systems. The program sought to serve 43 youths over a 2-year period. Note how the goals of the Clackamas County JDC follow the SMART framework: specific and relevant goal (reduce recidivism, drug/alcohol use, and increase family functioning), measurable (changes in youths’ perceptions of drug use and improvements in family systems), achievable (serving just 43 youths), and over a certain amount of time (2-year period).

    • Develop Clear Inclusion and Completion Criteria

      Clear inclusion criteria will ensure the population that is targeted by diversion efforts are diverted. Completion criteria for youths, once they are diverted, will minimize confusion about what youths and their families need to accomplish to successfully complete diversion programming.

      • Develop well-defined inclusion criteria for diversion and program participation so that practitioners have a clear understanding about who is eligible. By clarifying the inclusion criteria (e.g., youths can only be diverted if they committed a certain type of offense, only youths of a certain age can be diverted) you will enable practitioners to make appropriate referrals. The criteria should be clearly established and understood by those practitioners who will decide which youths are diverted. To reduce subjective decisions about who qualifies, practitioners should use validated screening tools or risk/needs assessments (for more information on risk/needs assessments, see Do Supportive Research).

        As one example, the Front End Diversion Initiative (FEDI) working group defined very specific criteria for inclusion in the program such as a formal mental health diagnosis and an adult in the family willing to participate. FEDI ensured through an interview whether the parent or adult was willing to participate as required; if not, the youth was not included. Similarly, the Indianapolis Family Group Conferencing also set clear criteria, including age and charge severity. This program recruited youths 14 years and younger who committed first offenses with charges up to and including felony D theft.

        The Maine Juvenile Drug Treatment Courts is an example of a program that used a validated instrument to establish participation eligibility. The program used the Youth Offender Level of Service Inventory–a validated screening tool used to measure the risk of reoffending–to determine if youths were eligible to participate.

      • Develop clear standards for program completion, so that youths and their families understand the requirements that must be fulfilled for diversion to be successful. Before youths and their families agree to participate, you should provide them with a good understanding of what conditions and requirements they must fulfill to successfully complete diversion programming. A written agreement would ensure that everyone is on the same page about the conditions of diversion, how those conditions will be met, how youths will be monitored to ensure compliance, and what could happen if youths are out of compliance (such as termination from the program and the possible legal ramifications of non-compliance, including returning to court to be formally processed). Documented completion criteria (e.g., youths and families must complete 90 percent of services provided, youths must complete 20 hours of substance use treatment) will diminish subjective judgments about program completion, which may result in youths returning to the juvenile justice system. It will also help with youth and family goal setting, as they will have specific goals to work toward during diversion programming services.

        The Prosecutor’s Early Intervention Program (PEIP) provides an example of set criteria that helped case managers determine when a family’s case could be closed. An Informal Family Service Plan was developed for high-risk families at the beginning of the program, and referrals were made to services or treatment, depending on the assessed needs of the youth. The youth’s teacher also completed the Child Behavior Inventory, which documented problem behaviors in school, before and after treatment began, to help assess whether the youth achieved the specific objectives laid out in the family plan (such as improve grades or school performance). If the family was compliant and the objectives were achieved, then the case was closed.
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