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Diversion Programs

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Today, diversion is envisioned as a set of programs and activities–such as job training and placement, alternative schools, and family counseling–that can help prevent first-time and non-serious delinquents from detention and from penetrating into the later and more serious stages of the juvenile justice system, and, in particular, imprisonment. It can be more effective in reducing subsequent delinquent behavior. And it can minimize the negative consequences sometimes associated with unnecessary detention and captivity, including the stigma associated with being labeled a “delinquent” and the potential aggravation of existing mental health conditions and disabilities and the propensity to commit crime (Ezell, 1992).

In theory, diversion programs are designed as alternatives to the conventional justice system and not as additional forms of sanction. Anecdotal evidence gathered by Montgomery (1997) through interviews with police, indicated that youth have been referred to the alternative measures program, on occasion, even where there was insufficient evidence to support the prosecution of any offence, which make it one of the most important weaknesses of diversion programs. There are no processes for review of decisions and no capacity for offenders to “appeal” against the decisions that might be made. Offenders are frequently in quite a vulnerable position relative to others involved in the criminal justice process.

While often offering offenders many benefits, there is also the potential that diversion practices may seriously compromise the rights of offenders.  To date, most reviews of diversion programs suggest that they are largely ineffective in practice, due to poor implementation and matching of individuals to appropriate programs (Ezell, 1992). As a result, such programs typically do not appear to improve outcomes for the individuals who are diverted and they may negatively impact juvenile justice systems by “widening the net”–that is, they pull greater numbers of youth into more serious types of interventions than would occur in the absence of diversionary programs.

Net-widening is a term used to describe the impact of measures which draw more offenders into the criminal justice system or which result in the greater involvement of those already in the system. Net widening involves offenders and others who would not normally come to the attention of the courts being referred to programs established to provide interventions for offenders. Police and others see the potential benefits of the diversion program and are more inclined to refer to the program than they are to charging offenders.

In this way the “net” cast by the system as a whole is widened and the system ends up dealing with higher numbers than before the diversion program was available and is constrained, it clearly is not eliminated. The risk that restorative programs which are integrated with the formal criminal justice system might contribute to net-widening depends to a large extent on the stage at which those processes apply the attitudes of gate-keepers to the program and the extent of discretion which can be applied in referrals. Diversion programs contribute to increase state surveillance e.g. net widening in the criminal justice system.


Ezell, M. (1992). “Juvenile arbitration: Net widening and other unintended consequences.” Journal of Research in Criminology & Delinquency. 26(1): 358-77.

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