The Effect of Youth Diversion Programs on Recidivism

Date01 May 2013
Published date01 May 2013
A Meta-Analytic Review

Ryerson University
Carleton University
Pre- and postcharge diversion programs have been used as a formal intervention strategy for youth offenders since the 1970s.
This meta-analysis was conducted to shed some light on whether diversion reduces recidivism at a greater rate than traditional
justice system processing and to explore aspects of diversion programs associated with greater reductions in recidivism.
Forty-five diversion evaluation studies reporting on 73 programs were included in the meta-analysis. The results indicated
that diversion is more effective in reducing recidivism than conventional judicial interventions. Moderator analysis revealed
that both study- and program-level variables influenced program effectiveness. Of particular note was the relationship
between program-level variables (e.g., referral level) and the risk level targeted by programs (e.g., low or medium/high).
Further research is required implementing strong research designs and exploring the role of risk level on youth diversion
Keywords: youth; juvenile; delinquency; diversion; recidivism; intervention; meta-analysis
A variety of approaches have been used to address the problem of youth crime. However,
most jurisdictions within Western societies reflect what is often termed a modified
justice model (Corrado, 1992). In this case, youth are processed within a formal judicial
system, and sanctions vary between punitive (e.g., incarceration, fines) and rehabilitative
actions. Only a very few exceptions, such as Scotland, utilize a corporatist model, where the
treatment of youth in conflict with the law is integrated into a larger social service system.
Those employing the modified justice model exhibit variability in the nature of the judi-
cial processing, although all ensure some legal protections for the youth. Various jurisdic-
tions employing this model also display variability in the extent to which they reflect a
punitive versus rehabilitative orientation. Many jurisdictions, particularly in the United
States, depend heavily on punitive sanctions, such as incarceration, use of fines, or com-
munity service orders. In other cases, while punitive sanctions may be available for youth
who commit serious crimes, the emphasis is on the provision of treatment interventions
designed to address the criminogenic needs of the youth. The Canadian system, governed
by the Youth Criminal Justice Act, reflects the latter approach. While provision is made for
AUTHORS’ NOTE: We would like to thank Leticia Gutierrez for her assistance with interrater reliability.
Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Holly Wilson, Department of Psychology,
Ryerson University, Jorgenson Hall, 350 Victoria Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5B 2K3; e-mail: Holly_Wilson14@

CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, Vol. 40, No. 5, May 2013, 497-518.
DOI: 10.1177/0093854812451089
© 2012 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology

punitive sanctions, such as incarceration, the goals of the Act emphasize a rehabilitative
strategy whereby the factors placing the youth at risk for criminal activity are addressed.
Many jurisdictions embracing at least some measure of a rehabilitative approach employ
diversion programs. One form of diversion, often reserved for lower-risk youth, is pre-
charge diversion, where, following initial contact with the police, the youth is diverted from
the system with no further police or judicial processing. Another form involves diverting
youth postcharge, where a charge has been laid by the police or prosecution but the youth
is diverted into an alternative system and no further judicial processing takes place. We will
see that while diversion programs show variability in format, all are designed to reduce the
youth’s involvement in the police and judicial systems. The next section presents an over-
view of differing formats displayed by diversion programs, followed by a discussion of
relevant theoretical and empirical developments.
As indicated above, a basic distinction among diversion programs can be made accord-
ing to program type and referral level. There are two types of diversion programs that
involve differing levels of intervention. Caution or warning programs are the least invasive
and serve to divert the youth out of the system with no further action, aside from a warning
or formal caution. Formal diversion programs, however, generally involve some condi-
tions, including an admission of guilt and an agreement to participate in programming if
available within the program and if deemed suitable. Programming may be provided within
the diversion program or through referral to a contracted external agency. However, not all
formal diversion programs involve interventions and may simply be based on some sort of
surveillance. Successful completion of the conditions of the formal diversion program will
generally result in no further actions.
Youth can be referred to both caution and intervention programs at two levels: prior to
or after the laying of a charge. Precharge referrals oftentimes involve the youth being
apprehended by police and diverted immediately, either by caution and release or by refer-
ral to an intervention program. The term true diversion is reserved for precharge caution
programs, as their involvement in the traditional justice system is at its most limited
(Binder & Geis, 1984; Polk, 1984). Postcharge referrals apply to youth formally charged
with a criminal offense. In this case, the youth who accepts responsibility for his or her
actions and agrees to participate in recommended programming will undergo no further
judicial processing. Successful completion of the diversion program generally results in
dismissal of charges. Decisions to refer to diversion at a postcharge level may rest with the
prosecutor and, under some circumstances, the judge.
Theoretical support for the use of diversion, whether involving therapeutic interventions
or not, is provided by labeling theory (Becker, 1963) and differential association theory
(Cressey, 1952; Sutherland, 1974). The former emphasizes the negative consequences of
labeling a youth as delinquent. This creates an expectation of continued antisocial behavior,

which may in turn limit access to conventional roles and opportunities. Differential asso-
ciation theory generally argues that antisocial attitudes and behaviors are learned through
the social learning process. Association with others (particularly peers) exhibiting such
attitudes and behaviors encourages their adoption in the youth. Both pre- and postcharge
diversion can help to reduce the impact of labeling and association with antisocial peers by
reducing the youth’s exposure to the traditional justice system.
A growing body of results from empirical research is also providing at least indirect sup-
port for the use of diversion. This research demonstrates clearly that involvement in the
juvenile justice system, holding all other factors constant, is associated with an increased
likelihood of offending behavior (Farrington, 1977; Huizinga, Schumann, Ehret, & Elliott,
2003; Klein, 1986; McAra & McVie, 2007; Smith, Goggin, & Gendreau, 2002; Tracy &
Kempf, 1996). For example, McAra and McVie (2007) compared two samples of youth
matched on criminal history and other variables. Recidivism rates were significantly higher
over the following year for the sample of youth drawn furthest into the justice system. They
concluded: “Taken to its extremes, this research would suggest (in a manner akin to labe-
ling theory) that contact with the youth justice system is inherently criminogenic” (p. 318).
An important question arising in the context of diversion concerns the necessity for
providing therapeutic interventions within the diversion process. As we will see, consider-
able variability is observed in existing diversion programs, with some simply cautioning
the youth, others depending on general services, such as community service, and still others
providing more or less intensive therapeutic interventions to address the needs of the youth.
The risk/need/responsivity model of offender intervention suggests that, under some
circumstances, focused therapeutic interventions are required for the diversion program to
effectively address the youth crime issue (Andrews & Bonta, 2010; Andrews, Bonta, &
Hoge, 1990). Both theoretical and empirical support for this model has been provided
(Dowden & Andrews, 1999; Dowden, & Andrews, 2003; Hanson, Bourgon, Helmus, &
Hodgson, 2009). Three core principles underlie the model. The risk principle states that the
intensity of interventions should reflect the level of criminogenic risk exhibited by the
youth; intensive services should be reserved for high-risk youth, with less-intensive ser-
vices reserved for lower risk youth. This principle has important implications for diversion
programs. Most of these are directed toward youth with low and moderate levels of risk,
and it is necessary to ensure that the level of intervention is adjusted to the youth’s level of
risk. Of particular importance is ensuring that youth presenting low levels of risk are pro-
vided minimal levels of intervention...

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