Police-initiated diversion for youth to prevent future delinquent behavior

Additional Info

  • Authors: David B. Wilson, Iain Brennan, Ajima Olaghere
  • Published date: 2018-06-01
  • Coordinating group(s): Crime and Justice
  • Type of document: Title, Protocol, Review, Plain language summary
  • Volume: 14
  • Category Image: Category Image
  • PLS Title: Police-led diversion of low-risk youth reduces their future contact with the justice system
  • PLS Description: 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 to reduce reoffending by limiting the exposure of low-risk youth to potentially harmful effects of engagement with the criminal justice system. This review examined whether police-led diversion and traditional processing of youth have different effects on rates of official delinquency.
  • Title: Police-initiated diversion for youth to prevent future delinquent behavior
  • Spanish PLS: La reorientación policial para jóvenes de bajo riesgo reduce sus posibilidades de ingresar en el sistema de penal más adelante
  • Spanish PLS Description: La mala conducta es parte normal de la adolescencia, aunque a veces pasa de ser simplemente disruptiva o problemática a transformarse en algo netamente delictivo. Los sondeos a escala nacional acerca de los jóvenes en los EE.UU. indican que la conducta delictual leve es normal, especialmente en el caso de los varones. Esta normalidad del comportamiento delictivo leve plantea la cuestión de cómo la policía debe responder a ella para corregirla, pero que también evite involucrar a los jóvenes con el sistema penal más allá de lo que se considera efectivo para reducir la mala conducta en el futuro. Los programas de reorientación policial son un conjunto de estrategias que la policía puede implementar para los jóvenes como una alternativa al procesamiento judicial. La reorientación es bien recibida por los policías, ya que permite un camino alternativo entre el ignorar a los jóvenes involucrados en delitos leves y el acusarlos formalmente de cometer un delito. La reorientación policial tiene el potencial de reducir la reincidencia al limitar la exposición de los jóvenes de bajo riesgo a los efectos potencialmente dañinos de verse involucrados con el sistema penal. Esta revisión examinó si la reorientación policial y el procesamiento tradicional de los jóvenes tienen efectos distintos sobre las tasas de delincuencia oficial.
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About this systematic review

This Campbell systematic review examines the effects police-initiated diversion programs on delinquent behavior, compared to traditional system processing. The review summarizes evidence from nineteen high-quality studies, including 13 randomized controlled trials and six quasi-experimental studies.

What are the main results?

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. Furthermore, we found no evidence to suggest these findings suffer from publication selection bias.


Overly punitive responses to youth misconduct may have the unintended consequence of increasing the likelihood of future delinquency; yet, overly lenient responses may fail to serve as a corrective for the misbehavior. Police diversion schemes are a collection of strategies police can apply as an alternative to court processing of youth. Police-initiated diversion schemes aim to reduce reoffending by steering youth away from deeper penetration into the criminal justice system and by providing an alternative intervention that can help youth address psychosocial development or other needs that contribute to their problem behavior.


The objective of this review was to synthesize the evidence on the effectiveness of pre-court interventions involving police warning or counseling and release, and cautioning schemes in reducing delinquent behavior.

Search methods

A combination of 26 databases and websites were searched. References of relevant reviews were also scanned to identify studies. We also consulted with experts in the field. Searches were executed by two reviewers and conducted between August 2016 and January 2017.

Selection criteria

Only experimental and quasi-experimental designs were eligible for this review. All quasi-experimental designs must have had a comparison group similar to the police diversion intervention group with respect to demographic characteristics and prior involvement in delinquent behavior (i.e., at similar risk for future delinquent behavior). Additionally, studies must have included youth participants between 12 and 17 years of age who either underwent traditional system processing or were diverted from court processing through a police-led diversion program. Studies were also eligible if delinquency-related outcomes, including official and non-official (self-report or third-party reporting) measures of delinquency were reported.

Data collection and analysis

This study used meta-analysis to synthesize results across studies. This method involved systematic coding of study features and conversion of study findings into effect sizes reflecting the direction and magnitude of any police-led diversion effect. There were 19 independent evaluations across the 14 primary documents coded for this review. From this, we coded 67 effect sizes of delinquent behavior post diversion across 31 diversion-traditional processing comparisons. We analyzed these comparisons using two approaches. The first approach selected a single effect size per comparison based on a decision rule and the second used all 67 effect sizes, nesting these within comparison condition and evaluation design.


The general pattern of evidence is positive, suggesting that police-led diversion modestly reduces future delinquent behavior of low-risk youth relative to traditional processing.

Authors’ conclusions

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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