Review: Can At-Risk Youth Be Diverted From Crime?

Reviewer: Sarah Krantz, Esq.

Article to be Reviewed: Jennifer S. Wong, Jessica Bouchard, Jason Gravel, Martin Bouchard, Carlo Morselli; “Can At-Risk Youth be Diverted From Crime? A Meta-Analysis of Restorative Diversion Programs.” Criminal Justice and Behavior Vol. 43, No. 10, October 2016, 1310-1329.


Mass incarceration has sparked a debate over the economic and social ramifications it has caused for criminal offenders. The tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and the 1990s are failing today. Thus, community based correctional programs have emerged as an alternative to simply locking up criminals. These programs are being used with youth to see if they will work to help divert juveniles from further crime.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice (RJ) focuses on the restoration of harms, rather than on retribution against the offender by involving the victim of the crime. RJ allows for the expression of disapproval of the offender’s actions by the community and the victim, followed by reacceptance of the offender into the community. The goal is that this process avoids the stigmatization and labeling of the offender, which make it more likely for the offender to engage in prosocial behaviors and live a crime-free life.

There are three major intervention models that dominate the practice of restorative justice: victim–offender mediation, family group conferences, and peacemaking circles. Although these restorative encounters are similar in that they are all characterized by mediated face-to-face dialogue to discuss the offense and come to an agreement on how to repair damages, they “differ on the ‘who’ and ‘how.’” In victim–offender mediation, the victim and the offender begin the process by individually meeting with a facilitator, and if they both agree to talk to one another face-to-face, then a trained facilitator will serve as a mediator between the offender and the victim. Family group conferences encourage the inclusion and participation of other individuals affected by the offense, such as the families of the victim, the families of the offender, and members of the community. In peacemaking circles or sentencing circles, a judge or a community leader serves as the facilitator of the discussion. This approach also utilizes a “talking piece” in order to ensure a balanced discussion among participants.


The authors of this study[i] aimed to provide a comprehensive synthesis of restorative diversion programs for youth, considering the best strategies to reduce recidivism, and identify the variables that play a role in effecting outcomes. To accomplish this goal, the authors conducted a literature review of relevant studies in this field based on 20 bibliographic databases from January 1990 to April 21, 2015.[ii] The search focused on four key constructs: (1) Youth, (2) Criminal /deviant behavior, (3) Diversion program, and (4) Evaluation. Data was then complied from 21 studies that met the criteria of the researchers.[iii] This provided from a control group of juveniles and a treatment group of juveniles who would be studied.


The study found that RJ diversion programs are generally effective at reducing juvenile diversion. Of the 21 studies that were examined, 15 provided positive effects of the programs while six suggested negative effects. Overall, the results were positive.[iv]

The study’s results suggest that restorative approaches can be useful in decreasing recidivism among youth. However, there is still a strong need for more peer-reviewed studies, as well as program reviews with youths of diverse racial and ethic backgrounds. Without such information at this time, the authors suggest that Restorative Justice continues to be embraced as an alternative to traditional punitive, expensive, and possibly detrimental youth justice programs. Additionally, advocates have argued that restorative justice increases victim satisfaction, decreases costs, and leads to long-term success in preventing recidivism.


[i] Programs were limited to settings in Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, other Western European countries, with delivery in a non-closed community setting. Studies in the analysis had a minimum treatment sample size of 20 and included at-risk youths (with respect to risks of delinquency involvement or recidivism) predominantly aged 12 to 18 years old. The studies used a pre-test/post-test design or a treatment/control group design with a control group deemed appropriate for comparison purposes. Random effects models were used to assume that variability across individual study effect sizes is a function of sampling error across studies (noise), as well as variability in the population effects being estimated.

[ii] List of 20 Databases: (Appendix A from original paper, reprinted here)

 ebsco host: 5,229 hits

  1. Academic search premier
  2. Criminal justice abstracts
  3. ERIC
  4. Medline
  6. PsycBOOKS
  7. PsycINFO
  8. Social sciences full text
  9. Social sciences abstracts

Proquest host: 3,273 hits

  1. Canadian research index
  2. National criminal justice reference service (NCJRS)
  3. PAIS international
  4. Proquest dissertations and theses full text
  5. Social services abstracts
  6. Sociological abstracts

Ovid: 104 hits

  1. Cochrane central register of controlled trials
  2. Cochrane database of systematic reviews
  3. Database of abstracts of reviews of effects

Solo Databases

  1. Open access theses and dissertations: 1,091 hits
  2. Web of science: 2,299 hits

[iii] A total of 11,996 hits were obtained through the systematic searches of 20 databases. Of these 11,996 hits, all potentially relevant articles based on titles/abstracts were selected for preliminary review, and virtually all were retrieved and reviewed by two team members.

[iv] The authors examined characteristics of the studies and found strong evidence that study characteristics played a role in the results found for the programs evaluated in this study. Studies using stronger research designs did not show evidence that programs were effective at reducing recidivism, while studies using weaker research designs showed a significant effect of treatment. Of the 21 effect sizes used in the analysis, 86 percent were from non-peer-reviewed sources, including book chapters, theses, and technical reports. Overall, the quality of the literature on these programs was for the most part relatively weak.