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Evidence-Based Practices Brief #6

The juvenile justice system was established under the belief that children who misbehave should be rehabilitated, but not subject to adult punishment. During the 1980s and 1990s, attitudes toward juveniles became more punitive and practices moved toward formally processing youth into the system;1 however, research demonstrates that youth who are formally processed may have worse outcomes than youth who are not formally processed.2 Juvenile diversion is one approach offered to reduce potential unintended consequences of juvenile court.3 The concept of diversion is based on Labeling Theory, which asserts that processing low-level youth through the system may have negative consequences because it stigmatizes them as “delinquents” despite committing relatively minor acts.4 To address these concerns, the recommendations are that juvenile diversion programs meet the following goals: (1) reduce recidivism, (2) reduce the stigma of being labeled delinquent, (3) reduce coercion and social control, (4) provide services, and (5) reduce costs for the juvenile justice system.5 Studies have mostly investigated recidivism as an outcome, with fewer studies investigating the other goals of diversion.6 Research on the effectiveness of reducing recidivism has been mixed. While some studies have found reduced rates of recidivism for diverted youth as compared to not-diverted youth, others have noted equal rates of recidivism.7 Some have explained that these differences may be because programs vary widely, including how well the program balances providing services and reducing unintended consequences of participating in diversion, as well as the characteristics and attitudes of youth who participate in diversion. As noted by Osgood,8 “Diversion programs cannot avoid stigma, coercion, and social control of formal dispositions if their clients were never at risk of receiving those dispositions. The programs may actually increase these phenomena if they serve as extensions of the justice system and expand its clientele… The essence of these criticisms is that the programs have failed precisely because they were not diversion programs” (p. 37).