Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Police diversion with young offenders works

Police-led diversion of low-risk youth who come into contact with the justice system is more effective in reducing future contact with the justice system compared to traditional processing.

New systematic review

A just (1 June 2018) published Campbell systematic review examines the effects police-initiated diversion programmes on delinquent behavior, compared to traditional system processing. The review, by David B. Wilson, Iain Brennan & Ajima Olaghere, summarises evidence from nineteen high-quality studies, including 13 randomized controlled trials and six quasi-experimental studies.


Youth misconduct and misbehavior is a normal part of adolescence and that misbehavior sometimes crosses the line from disruptive or problematic to delinquent. Nationally representative surveys of youth in the USA have
indicated that minor delinquent behavior is normative, particularly for boys. 

The normative nature of minor delinquent behavior raises the question of how police should respond to minor delinquent behavior in a way that is corrective, but also avoids involving the youth in the criminal justice system beyond what will be effective in reducing future misbehavior. Police diversion schemes are a collection of
strategies police can apply as an alternative to court processing of youth. Diversion as an option is popular among law enforcement officers, as it provides an option between ignoring youth engaged in minor wrongdoing and formally charging such youth with a crime. Police-led diversion has the potential to reduce reoffending by limiting the exposure of low-risk youth to potentially harmful effects of engagement with the criminal justice system.

The review examined whether police-led diversion and traditional processing of youth have different effects on rates of official delinquency.


The review examined 19 evaluations of diversion schemes undertaken between 1973 and 2011. Most studies were conducted in the USA (11) with the others in Canada (4), Australia (2), and the UK (2). The general pattern of evidence is positive, suggesting that police-led diversion reduces the future delinquent behavior of low-risk youth relative to traditional processing. Assuming a 50 percent reoffending rate for the traditional processing condition, the results suggest a reoffending rate of roughly 44 percent for the diverted youth. This overall benefit of diversion holds for the random assignment studies judged to be free from any obvious risks of bias. No meaningful differences were found across types of diversionary programs.  


The findings from this systematic review support the use of police-led diversion for low-risk youth with limited or no prior involvement with the juvenile justice system. Thus, police departments and policy-makers should consider diversionary programs as part of the mix of solutions for addressing youth crime.


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