Review: The Effects of Youth Diversion Programs on Recidivism

Reviewer: Sarah Krantz, Esq.

Article to be Reviewed: Robert D. Hodge and Holly A. Wilson, The Effect of Youth Diversion Programs on Recidivism: A Meta-Analytic Review, Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol.40, No.5, 497-518 (May 2013). http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0093854812451089.


Diversionary programs—no matter at what stage of the judicial process they are applied—are designed to reduce the youths involvement in the police and judicial systems. 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 post-charge, where once a youth is charged, the youth is diverted into an alternative system and no further judicial processing takes place.

The program type and referral level can distinguish diversionary programs. Caution or warning programs are the least invasive and serve to divert the youth out of the system with a warning or a formal caution. Formal diversion programs involve some conditions, including an admission of guilt and an agreement to participate in programming if available within the program and if deemed suitable. Once the conditions of a formal diversion program are completed, there is generally no further action taken by the court.

Diversionary programs have two different support theories. Labeling theory emphasizes the negative consequences of labeling a youth as a delinquent and focuses on how this could limit access to conventional roles and opportunities for youth. Differential association theory argues that antisocial attitudes and behaviors are learned and that associations with peers who exhibit similar behaviors only serves to encourage further negative behaviors.

The authors[i] of this study focused their research on the type of interventions that would make diversionary programs the most successful for youths. 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. The risk principle states that the intensity of interventions should reflect the level of criminal risk shown by the youth; intensive services should be reserved for high-risk youth, with less-intensive services reserved for lower risk youth. The need principle states that interventions should be directed toward the specific criminal needs of the youth. The responsivity principle states that decisions about programming should take account of non-criminal needs of the youth, as well as his or her strengths.

Other research supportive of diversion programs derives from comparisons between services provided in community versus institutional settings. This research found that, with all other factors being constant, therapeutic interventions in the community setting are more effective than those delivered in an institutional setting.

Method/Selection of Studies

In the study, the authors used computer searches[ii] to examine the recidivism rate of youth offenders referred to a diversion program compared to those subject to traditional processing. The authors defined “diversion” broadly as any program that allows youth to avoid official processing through a screening process prior to formal charges, full prosecution after the laying of the charge, or a traditional sentence after conviction.  This could include, but is not limited to, victim–offender mediation, community service work, restitution, and/or treatment/educational programs.

The authors evaluated 45 studies, reporting on 73 diversionary programs. Of the 73 diversion programs, 13 were caution programs, and 60 provided some form of intervention. The majority of the studies came from the United States, while six from Australia, three from Canada, and two from other countries.[iii]

Summary of Studies

The diversion programs studied provided a variety of services to the youth. Services included community service, restitution, restorative justice, and conferences. Youth participated in the services for a median of 1.22 hours. Treatment services were provided in 50 programs, with 40 providing some form of counseling, 23 offering skill-building programming, and 24 offering some other form of treatment, such as child advocacy. Sufficient information to code adherence to any of the risk, need, responsivity principles of treatment was available in 27 of the 50 studies reporting the presence of treatment. No programs adhered to all three principles. The average age of all youths was 14.72 years. The youth samples were more likely to be male and Caucasian. The majority of the youths committed a property related offense.

The studies included in the analysis involved 73 diversion programs assessing 14,573 diverted youth and 18,840 youth processed by the traditional justice system. The recidivism rates for all diverted youth had an average base rate of 31.5 percent while the recidivism rate for the traditionally processed youth was 41.3 percent. The cautioned youth had an average base rate of 26.8 percent, and the respective comparison group had an average recidivism rate of 39.5 percent.

Impact of Variables on Recidivism

A number of variables were analyzed to determine their degree of influence on the effectiveness of all diversion programs. After analyzing each study, the authors found that those that employed a successful research design were more likely to conclude that diversion programs were no more effective in reducing recidivism than the traditional justice system. They also found that evaluation studies conducted by individuals or agencies associated with the program in question found diversion reduced recidivism at a greater rate compared to conventional processing than did studies completed by an independent researcher.

Two program-specific characteristics were also examined as potential moderating variables. Programs that targeted youth prior to the laying of a charge were found to be more effective in reducing recidivism than programs accepting charged youth; however, the difference was small. Programs that targeted low-risk youth prior to the laying of a charge demonstrated significantly greater effectiveness than programs targeting low-risk youth who had been charged. For programs targeting medium- to high-risk youth, there was no evidence of differential effectiveness according to referral level.

The authors also evaluated the sponsors of the programs to see if that influenced the effectiveness of the programs. Programs provided by the criminal justice system seemed to reduce recidivism at a greater rate than those provided by other agencies. Programs that were run by private agencies actually had the least effective results.

Finally the authors looked to youth characteristics and demographics to see how that influenced youth success in diversionary programs. There was no statistical difference found in the effectiveness of diversion programs serving low- or medium- to high-risk youth. There was insufficient data to investigate whether caution programs targeting medium- to high-risk youth were more effective than intervention programs targeting the same risk level; only one caution program reported accepting medium- to high-risk youth. There was also no difference in effectiveness when evaluating the gender of offenders or comparing the age of participants. However, programs with a high prevalence of Caucasian offenders showed a greater reduction in recidivism than programs with a high prevalence of African-American youth.


The results of the study indicated that diversionary programs, both caution and intervention, are significantly more effective in reducing recidivism than the traditional justice system. These results were consistent with the authors’ original hypothesis and with the research reviewed, which indicated that simple contact with the judicial system could increase the likelihood of reoffending.

This meta-analysis provided strong support for the efficacy of diversion programs, whether these involved cautioning or direct interventions with the youth. In nearly all cases, these programs led to lower levels of reoffending than did traditional processing through the juvenile justice system. An additional potential benefit of using diversion as an alternative to traditional processing is the growing evidence that it is cost-effective.

The study’s conclusions also reinforce the notion that assessing the risk and the needs of youth offenders entering the system is important. Diversion efforts involving minimal intervention are appropriate for youth presenting lower levels of risk and needs. However, offenders at moderate and higher levels will benefit from more active interventions.


[i] Holly A Wilson and Robert D. Hoge.

[ii] “Computer searches of PsycINFO, Web of Science, Criminal Justice Abstracts,

Journal of Criminology, Crime & Justice, the National Criminal Justice Reference System, Journal of Research in Crime & Delinquency, Justice Quarterly, Dissertation Abstracts, and the DART-Europe E-theses portal were conducted using search terms that were a variation of diversion, alternative programs, and extrajudicial measures.”

[iii] This is relevant because the authors are Canadian and this was a Canadian research project.