Diversion: A Hidden Key to Combating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice

By the Sentencing Project

September 19, 2022


Compared to their white peers, Black youth are far more likely to be arrested and far less likely to be diverted from court following arrest. Such outcomes — getting arrested in adolescence or having a delinquency case filed in juvenile court — damages young people’s future and increases their subsequent involvement in the justice system.

Enter Diversion, a juvenile justice approach that addresses delinquent conduct without formally involving a young person in the court system. Pre-arrest diversion and pre-court diversion can be powerful options for reducing racial and ethnic disparities and improving outcomes in our nation’s youth justice systems.

Pre-arrest diversion occurs when authorities make a decision not to involve police, not to make an arrest, or not refer a case to juvenile court.

Pre-court diversion, or informal processing, occurs whenever prosecutors or court intake staff decide that a young person referred to juvenile court on a delinquency charge should not be formally petitioned in court, and their misconduct should be addressed informally outside the court system.

Both types of diversion are used far less than the evidence shows would be optimal. Yet, for most youth, diversion is more effective and developmentally appropriate than court.

This report introduces diversion as a crucial, untapped opportunity to address continuing racial and ethnic inequities in America’s juvenile justice systems. It identifies seven steps that advocates and system leaders can take to grow the use of diversion and ensure that young people — and particularly young people of color — are better positioned to thrive.

These seven steps are:

  1. Make diversion a primary focus in juvenile justice reform.
  2. Make reducing racial and ethnic disparities the core emphasis in efforts to expand and improve diversion.
  3. Abandon common rules and practices in diversion that disproportionately harm youth of color.
  4. Adopt policies that reduce subjectivity in diversion decisions.
  5. Require youth justice systems to prepare racial impact statements to analyze and better understand the effects of diversion.
  6. Collect, track and regularly report disaggregated data to document if diversion practices are reducing disparities and help identify new opportunities for diversion.
  7. Appoint an oversight body to review progress and advocate for further reforms when necessary.

Table of Contents

Key Takeaway

Building a juvenile justice system that works better for everyone is possible — and necessary

Diversion can be a powerful tool for addressing delinquent behavior in youth before it escalates and results in deeper — and sometimes lifelong — entrenchment in the justice system. Yet, despite persuasive evidence indicating diversion’s effectiveness, it continues to be an underutilized option in juvenile justice systems across the United States. Youth of color — especially Black youth — face significantly more barriers to accessing and completing diversion programs.

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