Voluntary Diversion Services

Section 2.1

Education, Social Service, Community-based, Child Welfare, Runaway and Homeless Youth, Mental Health, Law Enforcement and Juvenile Justice Systems Should Aim to Resolve all Status Offense Matters through the Provision of Voluntary Diversion Services

Status offense behaviors are low-level “offenses” that would not be an offense but for the child’s age. They are often symptomatic of larger issues the child faces in the home, school or community and may be less a reflection of the child’s risky behavior and more an indication of his or her unmet health, mental health, educational or family needs.  Youth alleged to have committed status offenses who are formally processed through the court system may be more likely to re-enter the justice system and experience other negative individual and family outcomes, such as increased tension between family members or negative educational or mental health outcomes.

Studies indicate that for low-level delinquency offenders programs have a more positive effect than formal court involvement and are more cost-effective.2

Research has also shown that formal justice system processing in and of itself can have a negative impact on youth, increasing the likelihood of future justice system involvement.1  Moreover, entering the formal court system can have many damaging effects on a child and family that may cause them more harm and/or amplify the issues that brought them into the system.  For example, in ‘incorrigibility’ or runaway cases, formal court processing may make the dynamic between parent and child worse and more adversarial.  In any case where the parent is an adverse party, court involvement may cause the child to feel resentment towards his or her parents or to feel abandoned.  If the child has entered the system because of a systemic failure in identifying, for example, a disability or abuse/neglect, being treated as an “offender” may never adequately address the child’s or families’ needs while pinning a stigmatizing label – one with collateral consequences – on a youth. 

Studies also indicate that for low-level delinquency offenders diversion programs have a more positive effect than formal court involvement and are more cost-effective.2  The same studies indicate that the best outcomes for public safety occur when the least restrictive interventions are offered.3  When implemented well, voluntary diversion approaches, such as those discussed in Section 1.6 and Section 1.7 better help families resolve conflicts, increase services to children in need, cost less and ultimately reduce the likelihood of re-entering the status offense or delinquency court system.

All stakeholders must recognize and commit to the premise that assessments or evaluations of youth, and statements made by youth in the course or conduct of diversionary informal proceedings, should not be later be used against them in any dependency, delinquency or criminal proceedings.  This is particularly important where such evaluations are conducted, or statements are made, prior to the appointment of counsel.  As discussed in Section 1.2, youth may not developmentally be able to understand the concept of possible self-incrimination when answering questions posed by an adult, or when participating in treatment, therapy, or other informal proceedings. Thus, prior to crafting alternatives to the formal justice system, there should be consensus and agreement reached on the limits of the use of such information.

1 Boutilier, A., and Marcia Cohen. (2009). Diversion Literature Review.  Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

2The Truth about Consequences—Studies Point towards Sparing Use of Formal Juvenile Justice System Processing and Incarceration. (January 2012) Washington, DC: National Juvenile Justice Network. Available at: http://www.njjn.org/uploads/digital-library/NJJN-Truth-about-Consequences_Fact-Sheet-FINAL_Jan23-2012.pdf.  

3 Id. (citing Petrosino, A., Turpin-Petrosino, C., and Sarah Guckenburg, “Formal System Processing of Juveniles: Effects on Delinquency.” Campbell Systematic Reviews, 2010:1, pp. 32-38 (January 29, 2010)); see also Uberto Gatti et al. (2009) “Iatrogenic Effects of Juvenile Justice,” 50 Child Psychology and Psychiatry 991, 994.