Legal Considerations for Successful Youth Diversion Programs

Posted February 24, 2023
Four teens stand on a beach. They look off into the distance as the sun sets, their faces bathed in light.

Image courtesy of the Criminal Justice Program at the UCLA School of Law

The UCLA School of Law Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Pro­gram has released a tool kit to help juris­dic­tions cre­ate and imple­ment youth diver­sion pro­grams. Address­ing Legal Issues in Youth Diver­sion: A Toolk­it offers rec­om­men­da­tions so com­mu­ni­ties can proac­tive­ly — and suc­cess­ful­ly — address many of the com­mon legal and pol­i­cy issues they are like­ly to face when imple­ment­ing diver­sion programs.



Youth diver­sion pro­grams use approach­es that steer youth away from the legal sys­tem and into com­mu­ni­ty-based, sup­port­ive ser­vices in lieu of for­mal court processing.


The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion and the Lib­er­ty Hill Foun­da­tion fund­ed the cre­ation of the tool kit. Casey has called for juris­dic­tions to sig­nif­i­cant­ly expand their use of diver­sion and address typ­i­cal ado­les­cent mis­be­hav­ior out­side of the court system.

Diver­sion from courts to com­mu­ni­ty-based respons­es pro­vides a much faster, more tai­lored response to a young person’s actions than the court sys­tem can,” says Jaqui­ta Mon­roe, a senior asso­ciate at the Foun­da­tion. Young peo­ple can get stuck in the jus­tice sys­tem, which cre­ates greater prob­lems for them rather than help­ing them learn from their mistakes.”

What’s in the Juve­nile Diver­sion Tool Kit

Address­ing Legal Issues dis­cuss­es legal con­sid­er­a­tions at the cre­ation and imple­men­ta­tion stages of juve­nile diver­sion pro­grams, includ­ing restora­tive jus­tice. Its analy­sis draws from the Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Program’s work to imple­ment diver­sion pro­grams in Los Ange­les Coun­ty. There, eli­gi­ble youth are divert­ed to com­mu­ni­ty-based ser­vice providers, either before arrest or at the pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al lev­el, with the goal of reduc­ing their involve­ment in the jus­tice sys­tem. The tool kit’s rec­om­men­da­tions cov­er the fol­low­ing areas:

  • Net-widen­ing: Lim­it diver­sion pro­grams to just those youth who would have oth­er­wise been referred to pro­ba­tion or juve­nile court to pre­vent the inad­ver­tent expan­sion of the juve­nile legal system.
  • Statute of lim­i­ta­tions: Make poli­cies flex­i­ble in tim­ing to give youth the best pos­si­ble chance of com­plet­ing diver­sion based on their indi­vid­ual needs.
  • Mem­o­ran­da of under­stand­ing: In a con­trac­tu­al agree­ment, lay out the respon­si­bil­i­ties of each part­ner in a diver­sion program.
  • Con­sent: Con­sid­er a pol­i­cy that allows a youth to select a sup­port­ive adult — they don’t have to be a par­ent or guardian — to autho­rize the youth’s enroll­ment in a diver­sion program.
  • Con­fi­den­tial­i­ty: Devise pro­to­cols that adhere to state law and ful­ly pro­tect young people’s privacy.
  • Man­dat­ed report­ing: Assess the legal duty to report alleged cas­es of child abuse or neglect care­ful­ly, includ­ing whether implic­it or explic­it bias­es may be present in a ser­vice provider’s deci­sion to report.
  • Mul­ti­ple charges: Advo­cate for poli­cies that allow youth who have been arrest­ed mul­ti­ple times to still have access to diver­sion programs.

The tool kit also has a sec­tion on legal con­sid­er­a­tions for youth and their fam­i­lies. A juve­nile arrest can raise numer­ous ques­tions about con­se­quences relat­ed to a diver­sion refer­ral, such as record seal­ing or civ­il legal issues, regard­less of whether the youth is processed through the juve­nile legal sys­tem. It is imper­a­tive that diver­sion pro­grams have resources to help youth nav­i­gate these entan­gle­ments. The author rec­om­mends that juris­dic­tions estab­lish a part­ner­ship with a legal ser­vices provider for that purpose.

By using this tool kit, juris­dic­tions can ben­e­fit from the lessons we learned through col­lab­o­ra­tive work in Los Ange­les Coun­ty with the agency respon­si­ble for advanc­ing youth devel­op­ment, young peo­ple, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and oth­er stake­hold­ers,” said Leah Gasser-Ordaz, the report’s author and youth jus­tice pol­i­cy lead at the UCLA School of Law Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Program.

Learn more about how Los Ange­les Coun­ty expand­ed youth diversion

Relat­ed resources:

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