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Practice Profile

Police-Initiated Diversion for Youth to Prevent Future Delinquent Behavior

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:

Effective - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types

Practice Description

Practice Goals/Target Population
Police-initiated diversion programs are pre-court interventions or strategies that police can apply as an alternative to court processing or the imposition of formal charges in situations involving minor delinquent behavior among low-risk youth. Examples of these strategies include a caution, a restorative caution, or a final warning or reprimand. The essential ingredient across these different intervention types is that police initiate a diversionary scheme for youthful offenders to help them avoid a criminal record and the negative consequences that accrue from such a record. These alternatives are often combined with an additional program element such as referral to a treatment service provider.

This approach is designed to reduce reoffending by minimizing youth contact with the criminal justice system and diverting them toward services that address their psychosocial development and other needs that contribute to their at-risk behavior. Diversion programs provide police with a corrective response to minor delinquent behavior that does not require formal processing. Such programs are often used primarily for first-time or low-level youth offenders.

Practice Components/Key Personnel
Police-initiated diversion may be known by other names, such as police-led proactive prevention, police-led diversion, or pre-charge diversion. The essential features of police-initiated diversion involve police officers initiating and leading a diversionary intervention to help youth avoid a criminal record and the potential negative consequences that may result from formal system processing.

At a minimum, diversion program participants include the police officer, the youth in question, and the youth’s parents or guardians. Victims (if any) are generally not involved in the process. Instead, police officers provide a general explanation to youth and their parents about the legal and social ramifications of continued delinquent behavior. Some variations of this practice include programs that do allow for victim participation, such as cautions or restorative cautions, which include structured discussion between the victim(s) and the youth. These programs typically involve a script with certain questions to structure discussion between the offender and the affected parties. Cautions also involve connecting the youth to other interventions and services.

Other variations of police-initiated diversion include final warnings and reprimand schemes, which use assessment-based approaches to evaluate the seriousness of the offense. Depending on the gravity of the offense, a reprimand or final warning may result in a referral to a multi-agency team for further assessment and placement in a behavioral treatment program

Practice Theory
The causal logic underlying diversion programs is supported by labeling theory and differential association theory (Wilson and Hoge 2015). Labeling theory suggests that the stigmatizing effect of labeling a youth as delinquent may create expectations for future deviant behavior and increase the likelihood of future delinquency (Bernberg et al. 2006). Diverting youth from the criminal justice system before they are labeled as “criminal” may therefore reduce reoffending.

Differential association theory posits that youth learn values, attitudes, and techniques of criminal behavior through interaction with delinquent peers (Sutherland 1939). Youth served by diversion programs are presumed to have less exposure to delinquent peers, compared with youth who are directly involved in the juvenile justice system. Interventions that minimize interaction with delinquent peers are likely to be more successful at reducing delinquency than those in which youth are exposed to delinquent peers (Wilson et al. 2018).

Meta-Analysis Outcomes

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Effective - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types
Wilson and colleagues (2018) found that police-led diversion interventions led to a statistically significant reduction in future delinquent behavior of low-risk youth, compared with youth processed traditionally. The mean odds ratio across the 31 included studies was 0.77. One way of interpreting this finding is that if a 50 percent reoffending rate for youth processed traditionally is assumed, the reoffending rate for youth who participated in police-led diversion programs is approximately 44 percent.
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Meta-Analysis Methodology

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Meta-Analysis Snapshot
 Literature Coverage DatesNumber of StudiesNumber of Study Participants
Meta-Analysis 11979 - 2015317824

Meta-Analysis 1
Wilson and colleagues (2018) conducted a meta-analysis to examine the effectiveness of police-led diversion programs on delinquency outcomes for youth between the ages of 10 and 17. To be included, studies were required to be experimental or quasi-experimental in design. All quasi-experimental designs were required to have a comparison group similar to the police-led diversion group. Studies were eligible if they examined delinquency-related outcomes, including both official and non-official measures of delinquency. Twenty-six databases and websites (such as ProQuest, NCJRS, Google Scholar, and Criminal Justice Abstracts) were searched.

Nineteen studies conducted between 1973 and 2011 (and published between 1979 and 2015) were included in the analysis. Of those, six were quasi-experimental, and 13 used a randomized control design. The authors coded 67 effect sizes on the effect of diversionary programs on delinquent behavior across 31 comparisons of diversion versus traditional processing. Several of the nineteen studies compared the effects of two or more diversion conditions with a single control condition, thus resulting in multiple comparisons.

Of the 31 interventions included in the review, 13 examined traditional caution, 14 examined caution with a referral to services, and 4 examined police restorative justice. Demographics were reported in several ways across the studies. For example, some studies described only the proportion of white or black participants, whereas other studies placed Hispanic or Asian participants in the “Other” category. Maximum age of participants was not reported in many of the studies; however, the authors excluded any studies that included an adult population of participants aged 18 and over. Twenty-two studies took place in the United States, and 9 studies took place in Australia, Canada, or the United Kingdom. Fifteen of the studies were conducted within a single police department area (such as a city), and the other four studies covered a wider area such as a county or region.

The meta-analysis was conducted using random effects models. Primary analyses were performed using the robust standard error method of modeling statistical dependence. Effect sizes based on scaled measures of delinquency were computed as d-type effect sizes and then converted to odds ratios using the logit transformation method (Lipsey and Wilson 2001).
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There is no cost information available for this practice.
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Implementation Information

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The interventions considered in this review were initiated by police agencies. They include a variety of diversionary schemes in which police officers seek to help low-risk youth offenders avoid formal criminal justice system processing, either before or after arrest. Police officers participating in these initiatives do not routinely receive training (Wilson et al. 2018).
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Other Information

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Wilson and colleagues (2018) found that while results varied across different types of diversion programs (e.g., diversion-only, diversion with referral to services, diversion with police-led restorative justice), the differences were not statistically significant. Of the 31 studies included in the meta-analysis, eight compared both diversion-only and diversion-with-referral-to-services with a comparison group. A modest, but not statistically significant, effect was found in favor of the referral-to-services condition, compared with the diversion-only and control group conditions. However, in general, there were no significant differences found across variations in diversion type.
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Evidence-Base (Meta-Analyses Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Meta-Analysis 1
Wilson, David B., Iain Brennan, and Ajima Olaghere. 2018. “Police-Initiated Diversion for Youth to Prevent Future Delinquent Behavior: A Systematic Review.” Campbell Systematic Reviews 2018:5.
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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Bernburg, Jon Gunnar, Marvin D. Krohn, and Craig J. Rivera. 2006. “Official Labeling, Criminal Embeddedness, and Subsequent Delinquency: A Longitudinal Test of Labeling Theory.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 43(1):67–88.

Lipsey, Mark W., and David B. Wilson. 2001. Practical Meta-Analysis. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Sutherland, Edwin H. 1939. Principles of Criminology (3rd ed). Philadelphia, Penn.: Lippincott.

Wilson, Holly A., and Robert D. Hoge. 2013. “The Effect of Youth Diversion Programs on Recidivism: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Criminal Justice and Behavior (40)5:497–518.
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Related Programs

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Following are programs that are related to this practice:

Canberra Reintegrative Shaming Experiments Promising - One study
A restorative justice program that incorporates the Wagga Wagga conference model as a diversion from conventional court processing. The program is rated Promising. The evaluation found a significant decrease in the reoffending rates of violent offenders some impact on offenders’ attitudes about the legitimacy of the law and reoffending. The evaluation found a limited impact of diversionary conferencing on recidivism outcomes.

Adolescent Diversion Project (Michigan State University) Effective - More than one study
A strengths-based, advocacy oriented program that diverts arrested youth from formal processing in the juvenile justice system and provides them community-based services. This program is rated Effective. The program was associated with a significant reduction in the rates of official delinquency of participating juveniles as compared to juveniles formally processed in the system. However, the program did not significantly affect youths’ self-reported delinquency.
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Practice Snapshot

Age: 10 - 17

Gender: Both

Race/Ethnicity: Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic, Other, White

Targeted Population: First Time Offenders, Young Offenders

Settings: Other Community Setting

Practice Type: Community and Problem Oriented Policing, Diversion

Unit of Analysis: Persons

David B. Wilson
George Mason University
4400 University Drive MS 4F4
Fairfax VA 22030
Phone: 703.993.4701