Diversion Programs: An Overview

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) is a private nonprofit organization whose mission is to reduce society's reliance on incarceration as a solution to social problems. CJCJ provides programs to persons facing prison, educates the public about the effects of imprisonment, and provides technical assistance to jurisdictions wishing to establish model programs for offender populations.

CJCJ maintains a staff of professionals with diverse backgrounds and expertise in various components of the criminal and juvenile justice field. As part of its commitment to reform, CJCJ incorporates exoffenders on its board and staff. CJCJ, which has offices in San Francisco, CA; Washington, DC; and Baltimore, MD, is recognized nationally as a leading innovator in the juvenile and criminal justice fields.

Diversion is "an attempt to divert, or channel out, youthful offenders from the juvenile justice system" (Bynum and Thompson, 1996:430). The concept of diversion is based on the theory that processing certain youth through the juvenile justice system may do more harm than good (Lundman, 1993). The basis of the diversion argument is that courts may inadvertently stigmatize some youth for having committed relatively petty acts that might best be handled outside the formal system. In part, diversion programs are also designed to ameliorate the problem of overburdened juvenile courts and overcrowded corrections institutions (including detention facilities), so that courts and institutions can focus on more serious offenders.

Diversionary tactics have a strong theoretical background that is based on "labeling" principles that initially evolved from Tannenbaum (1938), who wrote on the "dramatization of evil," to Becker's (1963) notion that social groups create deviance by labeling certain acts as "deviant" and treating individuals who commit those acts as "outsiders," to Lemert's (1951) classic statements about labeling leading to "secondary deviance." Thus, legal intervention by the juvenile justice system may actually perpetuate delinquency by processing cases of children and youth whose misbehavior might be remedied more appropriately in informal settings within the community.

Partly in response to the issues raised by the labeling perspective, the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice report (1967) called for the creation of youth services bureaus to develop alternative programs for juvenile offenders within local communities. The establishment of these bureaus, which quickly appeared in most communities, began a movement toward diverting youth, especially status offenders and nonserious delinquents, from the juvenile court.

The concept of the youth services bureaus, however, was ambiguous. Gibbons and Krohn (1991:313) observed, "For one thing, the recommendation that community services be coordinated by the bureau assumed that there was a wealth of services to be coordinated when, in fact, the lack of such agencies and services had been an impediment to successful juvenile court work."

It should not be surprising, therefore, that conflicting expectations, findings, and conclusions would emerge from such a widespread, disjointed, and complicated social experiment. Although many studies show that diversion programs are successful in reducing subsequent deviance, these studies are balanced by studies that find no impact. In certain cases, diversion programs were found to have detrimental properties (Polk, 1995).

Research

Picture Proponents of diversion, however, cite studies such as one in Colorado that involved comparisons between an experimental group of diverted youth and a control group who received regular handling by the juvenile justice system. The diversion program administered individual, parental, and/or family counseling to the diverted youth group, resulting in significantly lower recidivism rates than in the control group (Pogrebin, Poole, and Regoli, 1984; see also Frazier and Cochran, 1986; Gilbert, 1977).

A large-scale diversion program in Michigan, the Adolescent Diversion Project (Davidson et al., 1990), included juveniles accused of serious criminal acts and juveniles with status offenses. The study concluded that diversion can be safely extended beyond status and minor offenders. Although most of the offenders in the program admitted to criminal acts, the diversion programs reported lower recidivism rates than those reported for normal court-processed cases.

The most successful diversion programs have been those that provide more intensive and comprehensive services (Dryfoos, 1990). The use of experienced youth caseworkers is especially important to a program's success. For example, a program in St. Louis, MO, found that experienced youth caseworkers engendered greater behavioral changes in the youth than did less experienced caseworkers (Feldman, Caplinger, and Wodarski, 1983).

Opponents of diversionary programs cite studies that show diversion programs are unsuccessful (Rojek and Erickson, 1982). An analysis of a police diversion program found that diversion appeared to aggravate rather than deter recidivism (Lincoln, 1976). Elliott, Dunford, and Knowles (1978) found that intervention, whether received in a traditional juvenile justice setting or in an alternative program, resulted in an increase in levels of perceived labeling and self-reported delinquency among youth. Two other studies supported this finding (Lincoln, 1976; Lipsey, Cordray, and Berger, 1981). Other concerns raised about diversion programs include those related to prejudice, discrimination, civil rights violations, and the issue of net widening.

Many other projects and institutions throughout the country work with youth and detention diversion. Some examples of these follow.

Spofford Detention Center Project—New York, NY

New York In an attempt to relieve overcrowding in juvenile detention, New York City created the Department of Juvenile Justice in 1979. Subsequent changes introduced to reduce the use of secure detention included the development of a case management system for each youth detained, which viewed the period in which the youth was detained as an opportunity to identify various needs (e.g., medicine and education). Through the case management system, a computer-based system was created whereby information about each youth was organized. Today, the case management system uses a volunteer aftercare program through which the youth and his or her family receive needed assistance after the youth's release from detention.

Over the years, New York City's Spofford Detention Center was replaced by two smaller secure facilities plus various nonsecure options. Through such a system, the so-called dead time of youth awaiting court hearings is reduced, thereby making it possible to meet crucial needs of these youth (who come primarily from deprived neighborhoods). The program has received acclaim for excellence in the management of public facilities from organizations such as the Ford Foundation and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government (Krisberg and Austin, 1993).

The Key Program, Inc.—Boston, MA

Boston The Key Program uses a case management approach in which adjudicated youth are monitored on a 24-hour basis and must conform to strict rules in areas such as work, school, counseling, and victim restitution. The program was initiated by the State's commissioner of youth services in 1970 as a summer program for offenders from area reform schools. During the program's first summer, a small group of offenders participated in activities such as tutoring sessions and field trips to the Harvard University campus. The Key Program eventually became full time, and college students (primarily from Harvard University) would supervise youthful offenders, visiting them in their homes, seeing them on weekends, and generally interacting with them on a one-on-one basis. After the program became full time, the students earned college credits and were paid a small wage (Miller, 1998). The program now closely supervises approximately 500 youthful offenders in Massachusetts.

One unique feature of the program is that staff are encouraged to seek other jobs after 12 to 14 months of service in order to prevent "burnout" (Krisberg and Austin, 1993).

Associated Marine Institutes—Florida (Statewide)

Florida A case management system has been in use in Florida through the Associated Marine Institutes (AMI) (Krisberg and Austin, 1993). AMI consists of various programs for youthful offenders. Through this system, most youth live either at home or with foster parents. During the day, they are involved in various AMI-sponsored programs, such as training in boat repair and marine biology. Through activities such as mentoring and tutoring, AMI's education program helps the youth complete their high school educations. An evaluation of AMI's program found that its graduates do just as well if not better than youth in other Florida diversion programs (Krisberg and Austin, 1993).

As an alternative to more traditional forms of incarceration, AMI also operates a residential wilderness program known as the Florida Environmental Institute. In this program, youth are involved in work such as taking care of plants and animals, hauling logs, and doing repair work in the Florida Everglades, where the secluded environment prevents escapes and, therefore, reduces the need for high-tech security devices (Krisberg and Austin, 1993).

The RAND Corporation—Los Angeles, CA

Los Angeles Additional evidence in support of case advocacy is reflected in a study by the RAND Corporation (Greenwood and Turner, 1991). The RAND study compared two groups of randomly selected youth: a control group that consisted of youth who were recommended by their probation officers for incarceration and an experimental group that consisted of youth for whom dispositional reports had been prepared by case advocates. Of youth who received case advocacy disposition reports, 72 percent were diverted from institutional care, compared with 49 percent of the control group. The study also revealed resistance from juvenile justice officials, especially probation officers, to alternative dispositions, especially those originating with case advocates. It appeared that probation staff may have perceived intrusion into an area that had previously been considered their own "turf" (Greenwood and Turner, 1991).

CJCJ's Oak Hill Youth Center Depopulation Project—Washington, DC

Washington, DC The Oak Hill Youth Center Depopulation Project is a case management and advocacy project located in Washington, DC, that designs and implements case planning and advocacy for preadjudication hearings. The project is designed to ensure public safety through comprehensive tracking and to ensure each youth's court appearance. Through multilevel interventions, the project seeks to demonstrate that community-based interventions are an effective alternative to secure custody. The project employs a three-part referral process through the judiciary, defense attorneys, and Youth Services Administration. Youth are not rejected from the program based solely on the alleged offense.

Once identified, youth are interviewed and assessed to determine their potential for success; factors considered include living arrangements, support services, and past behavior. After youth are assessed and accepted, a comprehensive community treatment plan is immediately developed. Case plans include current offense and social background summaries along with detailed release recommendations. Should the court adopt the community treatment plan, the youth is released to participate in the program. Thereafter, CJCJ case managers implement the case plan through differential levels of monitoring and supervision.

Net Widening

Net widening is a term most commonly used to describe a phenomenon whereby a program is set up to divert youth away from an institutional placement or some other type of juvenile court disposition but, instead, merely brings more youth into the juvenile justice system who previously would never have entered. Instead of shrinking the "net" of social control, one actually "widens" it to bring more in.

A true diversion program takes youth who would ordinarily be processed within the juvenile justice system and places them, instead, into an alternative program. If 1,000 youth are normally processed within the system, a true diversion would take, for example, 300 of those youth and place them in alternative programs. Net widening would occur, however, if the alternative programs served 300 additional youth who were not part of the original 1,000 that were normally processed. Therefore, instead of dealing with a total of 1,000 youth (i.e., 300 in diversion programs and 700 within the juvenile justice system), the system is processing 1,300 (1,000 plus 300). A "net gain" or a "net widening" of 300 youth has occurred.

If diversion is to work effectively, youth must be diverted from the system rather than be caught up in a net-widening process. This issue becomes especially important when dealing with the ever-increasing problem of overcrowding within the detention centers of the juvenile justice system. When a particular detention center is plagued by chronic overcrowding, the solution is to either increase the space available (e.g., add rooms to the current structure or build a new one) or to remove a certain percentage of youth from that facility and place them in an alternative facility or program.

Constitutionality and Differential Treatment

Two additional issues related to diversion programs are constitutionality and charges of differential treatment based on race/ethnicity. For example, Bullington et al. (1978) found evidence of "disposition without adjudication" (i.e., final resolution of a case without formal court action by a judge). Bortner, Sunderland, and Winn (1985) found evidence of systematic differential treatment of African Americans; African American females, for instance, were more likely to be incarcerated for status offenses while their Caucasian counterparts were more likely to be diverted elsewhere.

Minority youth also far outnumber Caucasian youth among those incarcerated on any given day (Krisberg and Austin, 1993). This issue of racial/ethnic disproportion is a national problem. For example, minority youth constituted 52 percent of the total incarcerated juvenile population in 1985, 60 percent in 1989, and 65 percent in 1995. This cannot be attributed merely to the fact that minority youth stand a greater chance of being arrested; minorities fare worse than Caucasians at each subsequent stage of processing by the juvenile justice system. Regardless of the charge, minorities are more likely to be detained and sentenced to a corrections facility than are Caucasians (see Fagan, Slaughter, and Hartstone, 1987).

Nationally, in addition to the high levels of minority incarcerations, youth in the juvenile justice system often reflect a variety of high-risk elements that include inadequate family support, school failure, negative peer associations, and insufficient utilization of community-based services. Because most adjudicated youth released from secure detention do not have community followup or supervision, risk factors remain unaddressed (Dryfoos, 1990).

Line
Detention Diversion Advocacy: An Evaluation Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  September 1999