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Juvenile Justice: Community Treatment - Diversion

delinquency youth formal programs

Diversion, which can occur at any decision point in the system, refers to a decision that neither ignores the child nor moves the child along the formal processing route. The decision normally involves an agreement between the official involved in that decision point and the youth's family to pursue some informal remedial action. Thus, police may recommend to a youth's parents that they pursue some counseling for the youth and/or arrive at an informal settlement with victims in lieu of referring the youth to court. The court intake worker or probation officer may similarly broker an agreement as an alternative to proceeding to a dispositional hearing. At a dispositional hearing, a judge may choose to formally dismiss the case but informally direct a family to pursue treatment of some kind.

Diversion programs proliferated in the late 1960s and 1970s in response to recommendations contained in a 1967 report from the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (LEAA) (Binder). This report embraced the notions of labeling theorists, such as Howard Becker and Edwin Lemert, who argued that formal delinquency processing paradoxically created further delinquency through secondary deviance. That is, once a child is labeled as delinquent as a result of formal processing for a delinquent act (primary deviance), teachers, police, and others would expect him or her to engage in further delinquency and would be quick to interpret any signs of problematic behavior as verifying that child's delinquent status. Moreover, according to labeling theory, the child would come to internalize the label and act accordingly. Subsequent delinquency results from these self-fulfilling prophecies (secondary deviance). According to labeling theory, diversion programs are attractive because they provide needed services while avoiding the stigmatization associated with formal processing, thereby presumably reducing the likelihood of future delinquency. With the encouragement of federal funding, a broad and creative range of diversion programs flourished, including a network of community-based Youth Service Bureaus (local centers for delinquency prevention programming) in many states, mostly in urban areas. The federal seed money soon evaporated, and most localities did not sustain the Youth Service Bureaus, yet they are making a comeback in some places, such as Indiana.

Critics soon focused attention on some troubling, unintended consequences of diversion (e.g., Austin and Krisberg; Ezell). While intended as an alternative to formal processing, diversion seemed at times to "widen the net" of social control. Instead of "capturing" youths who otherwise would be processed further through the formal system, diversion sometimes captured youths who otherwise would have been released, thus ironically increasing stigmatization and control. Furthermore, critics argued, diversion tended to be applied inequitably, more for girls and for white, middle-class youths than for persons of color.

Evaluations of diversion have shown mixed results (e.g., Davidson et al.; Osgood and Weichselbaum; Palmer and Lewis), suggesting that some diversion programs produce reductions in recidivism while others do not. As with any other aspect of juvenile correctional treatment, the key seems to lie in the matching of the appropriate youths with well-managed programs that can flexibly tailor services to meet individual needs.

While less prominent in the "lock 'em up" climate at the end of the twentieth century, diversion retains a place in the repertoire of community-based options for dealing with delinquents, and will likely continue to do so.

Juvenile Justice: Community Treatment - Pre-adjudication [next]

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