Diversion Programs

  • Introduction


    This Model Programs Guide (MPG) I-Guide is focused on diversion. Diversion is a term used to describe intervention approaches that redirect youths away from formal processing in the juvenile justice system, while still holding them accountable for their actions. The goal of diversion is to remove youths as early in the juvenile justice process as possible to avoid later negative outcomes associated with formal processing, such as increased odds of recidivism, stigmatization/labeling, and increased criminal justice costs (for more information on the potential harm of further processing into the juvenile system, see the Formal System Processing of Juveniles practice profile on

    There are many strategies for diversion, from simple warn-and-release programs to programs requiring intensive treatment services and check-ins with the court system. Because programs are usually designed to fit the needs of a community, there is a wide variation in diversion programming and subsequent research. This I-Guide provides a general overview of the implementation process for diversion programs, references a variety of diversion research, and provides useful suggestions on how to deal with challenges in implementation.

    The I-Guide was designed for those interested in implementing a preadjudication diversion program (that is, a program that diverts youth from formal processing before they go to court). Preadjudication diversion can occur at different contact points in the juvenile justice system, such as arrest, referral, and intake. Preadjudication diversion seeks to divert youths who would otherwise have been formally processed in juvenile court. Potential users may include juvenile court judges and court services personnel; prosecutors; juvenile probation officers; mental health or treatment service providers; juvenile defense attorneys and public defenders; law enforcement; members of the community; victims; parents; and juveniles themselves.

    How can this I-Guide help me?

    Users of this I-Guide can be at any point in the pre-implementation stage of a program. The I-Guide can be helpful for:

    • People who want to start a diversion program, but first need to conduct a community needs assessment to understand the extent of the problem in their jurisdiction.
    • People who want to select a diversion program to implement, but need more background information on the types of programs to choose from.
    • People who are close to starting a diversion program in their community, but want more information on issues such as sustainability or handling unanticipated setbacks that may occur once a program begins.

    For those looking for more information on diversion, the Model Programs Guide has a variety of diversion programs, as well as a literature review on diversion from formal juvenile court processing.

    Additionally, NIJ’s offers a profile on Juvenile Diversion Programs practice. This includes an evidence rating for the following outcome:

    • promising Crime and Delinquency – Multiple Crime/Offense Types

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  • Goal of this I-Guide

    This I-Guide focuses on the beginning stages of implementing a post-arrest, pre-adjudication diversion program. The I-Guide includes programs that divert youths away from court hearings and formal juvenile court processing. Please note, however, that this I-Guide does not focus on law enforcement and school-based diversion programs that aim to minimize youth arrests and referrals, as there is currently not a lot of research on these specific types of diversion programs. However, when available, research related to these types of programs has been included.

    To narrow the focus of the I-Guide, research and evaluations of evidence-based programs have been included if they meet one of the following standards:

    • The program diverted youths away from formal processing in the juvenile court system prior to adjudication (i.e., postadjudication diversion programs that seek alternatives to juvenile detention or secure confinement were excluded).
    • The program evaluation could look at any outcome related to the behavior or well-being of diverted youths and their families (i.e., recidivism, mental health, substance abuse, stigma of justice involvement, family functioning, justice system costs), as long as youths’ participation in the diversion program occurred prior to adjudication.

    These standards were used to ensure that this I-Guide provides specific information on the implementation of court-based diversion programs, rather than broad information on diversion in general. Essentially, the goal of this I-Guide is to answer the following question: "What should I do to implement a program or practice in my community that can divert youths away from formal system processing in the juvenile justice system?"

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  • Brief Background on Juvenile Diversion Programs

    As stated above, juvenile diversion programs allow youths who commit offenses to be directed away from more formal juvenile justice system involvement.

    Diversion is based on the belief that formal system processing and/or incarceration of youths leads to a greater likelihood of future criminal behavior, and that alternatives such as decriminalization, deinstitutionalization, and diversion are better for long-term youth development. By creating informal channels to navigate youths (generally those who have committed non-violent, first-time, or status offenses) away from traditional processing, diversion programs serve as opportunities to correct youths’ antisocial behaviors with the assistance of their families and the community, rather than through the justice system.

    There are a wide variety of diversion program types, including:

    • teen/youth courts;
    • mental health courts;
    • restorative justice interventions;
    • truancy prevention/intervention programs; and
    • mentoring programs.

    There are two general types of diversion programs: informal and formal.

    • Informal or caution or warning programs are the least invasive and serve to divert youths out of the system with little to no further action.
    • Formal diversion programs usually occur after arrest and involve 1) a justice component (police decisions, probation supervision, court processes), and 2) a service component.

    Descriptions of these approaches, as well as general information on the effectiveness of diversion, are available in the Juvenile Diversion Programs practice profile on Specific diversion approaches are also included in the Diversion from Formal Court Processing literature review featured on the MPG.

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  • Steps to Take: Diversion Programming

    Below are the 10 steps of the MPG I-Guide on implementing preadjudication, court-based diversion programs. You can view the steps in the order listed, or go directly to those steps that are most relevant to your implementation process. The 10 steps are also listed in the blue box on the right side of the page, allowing you to easily navigate through the I-Guide.

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1Note that information on cyberbullying and bullying that occurs outside of school is not included in this I-Guide, because the research on programs and practices to address these forms of bullying is still developing. In addition, this I-Guide focuses on programs (classroom-based or school-wide) that prevent or intervene with bullying, but it does not address programs that help individuals with the consequences of bullying, such as therapeutic approaches. Similarly, this I-Guide does not focus on programs aimed at affecting a school’s climate, which can impact bullying indirectly; instead, the research used to develop this I-Guide focused on the implementation of programs that target and impact bullying directly.