Juvenile Diversion and the Family: How Youth and Parents Experience Diversion Programming

Published date01 November 2021
Date01 November 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 11, November 2021, 1576 –1595.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548211013854
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
How Youth and Parents Experience Diversion
University of California, Irvine
Despite extensive research into juvenile justice interventions, there is a limited focus on family engagement, including par-
ent–child experiences in these various programs. Even less research explores how families, specifically youth and parents,
are affected by diversion from the traditional juvenile justice system. The current study fills this gap by drawing from in-depth
interviews with 19 parents and 19 youths participating in a juvenile pretrial diversion program in Southern California. This
research highlights how a diversion program can influence how families understand the justice system and law-related behav-
iors. The themes discussed include how diversion programs shape parent–child bonds, how parents navigate negative indict-
ments of youth and themselves for participating in diversion, and the influence of external challenges and social forces
shaping youth and parent experiences. Findings support the theoretical contributions from social bond and labeling theory.
Implications and future research will also be discussed.
Keywords: juvenile delinquency; attitudes; criminological theory; parenting; perceptions; qualitative methods; social
bonds; stigma
Family-focused research into juvenile delinquency has repeatedly established the signifi-
cant role that parent–child dynamics play in shaping youth behavior (Burgess & Akers,
1966; De Coster, 2012; Steinberg et al., 2006). A large body of work supports the idea that
parents can protect their children from engaging in delinquency through emotional support
and attachment, positive legal socialization, and active supervision (Hoeve et al., 2009;
Palmer & Hollin, 2001; Steinberg et al., 2006; Tyler & Trinkner, 2017; Vidal & Woolard,
2016). Despite the literature demonstrating the importance of parent–child relationships,
limited research explores the role of parental involvement throughout youths’ juvenile jus-
tice system processing (Vidal & Woolard, 2016). In fact, parents and families may be char-
acterized by juvenile justice officials and/or programs as sources contributing to their child’s
involvement in the justice system (Burke et al., 2014; Cox, 2018). Although justice system
AUTHORS’ NOTE: We have no conflicts of interest to disclose. Correspondence concerning this article
should be addressed to Mark Magidson, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, University of California,
Irvine, 2340 Social Ecology II, Irvine, CA 92697-7080, USA; e-mail: magidson@uci.edu.
1013854CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211013854Criminal Justice and BehaviorMagidson, Kidd / JUVENILE DIVERSION AND THE FAMILY
programming may attempt to “engage in a positive and supportive role with parents while
still meeting the larger societal goals of community or child protection” (Burke et al., 2014,
p. 40), research has found that youth case officers’ perceptions of families as good or bad
can influence the punitiveness of their decisions concerning youth outcomes (Rodriguez
et al., 2009). Parents may accept these negative characterizations and internalize blame for
their child’s actions.
Although studies have highlighted the complex relationship that parents of juvenile justice–
involved youth have with their children, community, and system officials (Rodriguez et al.,
2009; Vidal & Woolard, 2016), less attention has been paid to the experiences of parents of
youth—and the youth themselves—diverted from the traditional justice system. A wide
variety of diversion programs exist, commonly catering to first-time, low-level youth, who
admit responsibility for their behaviors and attempt to rectify their actions (Rasmussen,
2004). These programs may occur in various forms, such as individual or family counsel-
ing, cognitive-behavioral therapy, community service, juvenile drug court, and teen court
(Schwalbe et al., 2012). Parents, as opposed to the state or justice system officials, typically
assume a supervisory role to ensure that their child is adhering to program requirements
(Abdulla & Goliath, 2015; Schlesinger, 2018). In addition, parents must consent to their
child’s participation in diversion and are often responsible for the financial costs of program
participation (Harvell et al., 2004).
Despite the literature demonstrating the importance of parent–child relationships, there
is a lack of research exploring parents’ involvement in youth diversion programming. It is
necessary to address this gap in the literature because diversionary programs are popular
interventions that seek to prevent youth from being formally processed in court, but existing
evidence has not substantiated their effectiveness, particularly in their ability to reduce
recidivism (Manski & Nagin, 1998; Regoli et al., 1985; Schwalbe et al., 2012; Wilson &
Hoge, 2013). Given the high level of parental involvement throughout diversion program-
ming, the instrumental role parents play in supporting their child throughout diversion, and
the knowledgeable insight parents have about their child’s needs, it is important to address
how parents perceive their experiences with diversion. It is a particularly worthwhile con-
sideration because diversion strives to reduce youths’ future contact with the justice system,
but programs and/or program officials may typify parents as partly responsible for their
child’s actions, similar to formal officials’ characterizations of parents of justice-involved
youth (Burke et al., 2014; Cox, 2018). As the juvenile justice system continues to transform,
embracing family engagement and restorative justice–based approaches, it is important to
consider the direct impact of these procedural changes on the population of youth and fami-
lies that they seek to help to ensure that these practices are implemented appropriately
(Rozzell, 2013).
The relationship between parents and children is a prominent factor of support and/or
stress for youth, particularly teens (De Coster, 2012). This finding is consistent across mul-
tiple perspectives, including social bond theory. Seeking to explain why some individuals
do not commit crimes, Hirschi’s (1969) social bond theory proposes that weakened or bro-
ken ties to society may facilitate a person’s engagement in deviancy. In the absence of

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