Protect and Redirect: America’s Growing Movement to Divert Youth Out of the Justice System

Jurisdictions across the country are advancing reforms to expand and improve diversion, demonstrating diversion’s potential to transform youth justice in ways that protect public safety and enhance youth success.  Related to: Youth Justice, Racial Justice.

March 20, 2024

After decades of neglect, the youth justice field is awakening to the importance of diversion in lieu of arrest and formal court processing for many or most youth accused of delinquent behavior. Even amid rising concerns over youth crime nationwide, jurisdictions across the country are heeding the evidence by taking concerted action to address more cases of alleged lawbreaking behavior outside the formal justice system. This momentum to make diversion a centerpiece of juvenile justice reform is encouraging given powerful research showing that youth who are diverted from the justice system are far less likely to be arrested for subsequent offenses and far more likely to succeed in education and employment than comparable youth who are arrested and prosecuted in juvenile court. Greater use of diversion is also essential to reduce the persistent racial and ethnic disparities that pervade youth justice systems.

This brief details significant diversion reform efforts of several types.

Many jurisdictions have taken steps in the past five to 10 years to expand diversion opportunities for youth by creating new laws, programs, or pathways to increase the use of diversion – and in some cases by mandating or otherwise compelling the use of diversion in some types of cases. Several jurisdictions have embraced new approaches to ensure that lower-risk youth with significant human services needs are handled outside the justice system. More than a dozen states have raised the minimum age for involvement in delinquency court – meaning that youth under the new age thresholds are automatically diverted.

A number of states and localities have taken significant steps to promote racial and ethnic equity in diversion. Some jurisdictions have created multidisciplinary teams, compiled and analyzed data, and undertaken comprehensive reviews to identify and address problematic practices that have been causing diversion disparities. Others have been revising diversion-related laws, rules, or practices that often disadvantage youth of color.

In other jurisdictions, justice system leaders are making changes to improve diversion practices and increase the success of youth once diverted. For instance, there is growing momentum to support the use of restorative justice diversion programs, which aim to engage youth in repairing the harm caused by their behavior. And there is growing interest in expanding opportunities for youth to be diverted prior to arrest, which is even more advantageous than diverting youth after they’ve been arrested and referred to court. Other jurisdictions are taking steps to reduce the failure rates of youth in diversion and to minimize the share who are returned to court for noncompliance with diversion.

Many jurisdictions have improved the collection and sharing of data to better inform diversion policies and programs. A number of states have significantly expanded data collection and reporting requirements for diversion. Other states and localities have begun to measure diversion outcomes against new success metrics, or created new data dashboards to make information on diversion participation and results available to a wide audience.

This report is the first piece in a five-part package of publications about youth diversion by the Sentencing Project in 2024. The other four briefs highlight critical lessons for advocates and system leaders interested in expanding and improving the use of diversion in youth justice, including: how to address disparities in diversion; best practices for diversion; using data to maximize success in diversion; and effective messaging to promote diversion. These issue briefs will be available in April 2024.


Diversion is the decision to address a young person’s alleged misconduct outside of the formal justice system, either prior to an arrest being made or after referral to juvenile court on delinquency charges. Diversion has long been an option in the juvenile justice system, but it has received little attention in policy debates or media coverage of youth justice. Diversion, therefore, remains poorly understood by the public. Historically, and to this day, diversion has often been misused. It has remained underutilized for youth who would most benefit – those who pose manageable risks to public safety but would otherwise be prosecuted in court and exposed to counterproductive sanctions in the juvenile court process and their resulting collateral consequences. At the same time, diversion programs have often been imposed unnecessarily on youth who pose minimal risk to the public who would otherwise not be involved in the justice system at all, a phenomenon known as net-widening.

Compelling evidence finds that arrests and formal involvement in the justice system are counterproductive both for public safety and youth well-being. Research studies consistently find that being arrested in adolescence substantially increases the likelihood of future justice system involvement, and it reduces future success in school and work. Studies also find that once arrested, youth who are formally charged in juvenile courts do far worse than those whose cases are diverted from court on many measures of public safety and youth well-being. Also, compelling evidence shows that decisions at the early stages of the justice system process – those that involve diversion as an alternative to arrest, or to formal processing in court – suffer from substantial biases against youth of color, and that these biased decisions around diversion are an important driver of subsequent disparities in confinement.

In the most comprehensive and ambitious study ever undertaken…Diverted youth had equal or better outcomes on all 19 outcome measures!