It’s no secret that youth from racial and ethnic minorities experience difficulty in the justice system, and diversion strategies are no different.
Brittanica describes diversion as “any of a variety of programs that implement strategies seeking to avoid the formal processing of an offender by the criminal justice system.”
Essentially, diversion carves a path for rehabilitation and reform outside of prison. When it comes to managing criminal behavior among juveniles, diversion offers juvenile offenders a chance to get an education and make the most of their lives without a criminal record.
Unfortunately, there is a massive disparity between white youth and youth of color being diverted, meaning that youth of color get caught in the criminal justice system.
Benefits of youth diversion strategies
The Sentencing Project describes how diversion should be applied to all youth of all racial groups and can be exercised both pre-arrest and pre-court. In both instances, there are benefits to youth development, showing the following research-proven benefits;
- Less likelihood of future arrests
- Less likely to be incarcerated
- Less violence is committed
- Higher rates of school completion and college enrollment
- Earn higher incomes as adults
Diversion programs may include mental health programs or substance abuse rehabilitation efforts. Proper screening is needed to determine the root cause of delinquency, and then education and tutorial services follow.
Some diversion programs include victim awareness classes, job skills training, crisis intervention, family counseling, and quality recreation and organized sports programs.
Difficulties facing diversion
If youth diversion offers so many benefits, why isn’t diversion applied in more circumstances?
Sentencing Project dives into one of the biggest problems with diversion programs — the subjective bias that haunts the system.
State laws seldom stipulate clear criteria for diversion, leaving the decision in the hands of biased individuals. Unfortunately, the issue affects certain groups of people more than others.
There are three main pillars of bias evident in the diversion system.
- Bias against juveniles of color
- Bias against families of color
- Unequal justice by geography (vast differences in diversion practices between different jurisdictions
Problematic practices heighten these disparities.
For example, unnecessary rules limit eligibility for diversion to youth referred to court for the first time on misdemeanor or status offenses.
Other issues include;
- Poor efforts to inform youth and their families regarding participation
- Requirement that the juvenile admits guilt to qualify
- Rules that serve as a barrier for families to meet program requirements
- Fees or costs involved in the participation of diversion programs
- Lack of support for youth and families at risk of failing diversion
Overcoming the obstacles facing diversion strategies
The first step to overcoming the obstacles that face diversion strategies is to acknowledge they exist. With a clear understanding of the bottlenecks and biases in the system, the challenges can be overcome effectively.
The Sentencing Project further reveals how some states are already incorporating strategies to overcome these issues. For example:
- Funding is provided to support diversion programs
- Intensify efforts to contact family members
- Reduce imbalances in diversion opportunities by setting standard guidelines
- Minimize consequences for non-compliance with diversion rules and requirements
- Create new mechanisms to support youth in need Improve data collection for a more accurate representation of progress
There are a few key fundamentals that local advocates and systems leaders should focus on. The following strategies can help diversion strategies become a positive alternative to incarceration.
- Reducing racial and ethnic disparities to make diversion more accessible
- Reassessing rules that exacerbate disparities Identifying and responding to implicit bias
- Demanding that youth justice systems prepare racial impact statements to understand existing policies and practices better
- Focusing on data to reduce disparities and enhance opportunities
- Appointing an oversight body to track progress
Ultimately, diversion has incredible potential in youth justice reform, and aggressive action is needed to counter racial and ethnic disparities in diversion programs.