Diversion in the Juvenile Justice System

Thursday, November 2, 2023
Yellow background with a white open door

Arrest, prosecution, and a cold, lonely cell are the first things that come to mind when we envision a young person who has been caught in the web of our criminal legal system. For decades, this has been the response to address youth delinquent behavior. Is it working? In Washington, nearly 1 in 3 young people recidivate (re-offend) within 12 months of their disposition (juvenile sentencing). It has been a clear and unambiguous failure. Why do we continue to rely on the same unsuccessful methods? 

There is clear evidence that shows that having a delinquency case filed in juvenile court or being arrested damages a young person’s future and increases their chances of further involvement in the legal system. In acknowledgment of this harm, a handful of counties in Washington state have turned to better practices to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and improve outcomes in our state’s youth criminal legal system. They’re turning to a practice known as diversion. 

What is diversion? 

Diversion is a less harmful practice that addresses delinquent behavior without formally involving the court system. For most youth, diversion is more effective and developmentally appropriate than court. There are two types of diversion: 

  • Pre-arrest diversion occurs when authorities decide not to involve police, not make an arrest, or not refer a case to a juvenile court. 

  • Pre-court diversion occurs whenever prosecutors or court intake staff decide that a young person referred to juvenile court should not be formally petitioned in court, and that their misconduct should be addressed outside of the court system. 

Several studies have shown that youth diverted from the justice system have lower likelihoods for future arrests, higher rates of school completion and college enrollment, and earn higher incomes in adulthood. Yet despite their clear success, both types of diversion are used far less than the evidence shows would be optimal. This is especially true for youth of color, who are denied opportunities for diversion far more often than their white peers because of implicit bias directed against them, their families or because of unequal justice by geography. Recent statewide data shows that Black youth are nearly 3 times as likely as white youth to be arrested; in King County, Black youth are nearly 7 times as likely as white youth to be arrested. Furthermore, Black youth are nearly 4 times as likely to be referred to the juvenile court than white youth, meaning they’re far less likely to be offered and take advantage of the benefits diversion can provide.  

What does diversion actually look like in practice? 

In 2020, King County launched Restorative Community Pathways (RCP), a community response to harm that focuses on healing, restoration, and accountability. It’s a pre-court diversion program, backed by the King County Prosecutor’s Office, available to youth accused of first-time felony offenses throughout King County. Young people are partnered with a community navigator who connects them to opportunities and resources. The program is a partnership between six local nonprofit organizations: CHOOSE 180, Congolese Integration Network, Collective Justice, Creative Justice, East African Community Services, and Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington. Rather than being prosecuted through the punitive and harmful court system, RCP partners with youth and those impacted to address their needs and provide them with community support and healing. Early data collected by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office between November 1, 2021, and August 18, 2022, showed that of the 145-youth participating in RCP in lieu of prosecution, only 12 have had new case referrals. This data indicates an 8% recidivism rate compared to the 30% when sent through traditional incarceration.   

Just south of King, Pierce County relies heavily on diversion, prioritizing probation and community partnerships to support young people with serious and complex cases, sending a dramatically smaller percentage of its young people to court-ordered correctional facilities and other residential institutions, compared to the national average. The county’s policies and practices recognize that young people are more likely to thrive in their own communities with stable connections to positive adults and activities than in institutional confinement. For example, young people charged with physical altercations or vandalism within their own families can be directed to a non­profit partner that provides respite care and services for families in crisis, modeled after an approach used in King County. This is an early and swift intervention — typically within 24 to 48 hours of arrest — in contrast to formal processing, which often creates weekslong delays in services and unnecessary involvement in the justice system. As of December 2020, more than 80% of diverted youth had no new arrests two years after being diverted; 93% had no felony arrests.  

How can we make diversion more accessible? 

Despite its clear success, diversion is still not as common as it should be. Diversion is completely discretionary, leaving the choice entirely in the hands of law enforcement and prosecutors. To make meaningful strides in reforming our juvenile legal system, diversion must be made the default option statewide.  

But before diversion is possible, counties and the state must first prioritize and increase funding for the development and expansion of community-based alternatives as a primary response to youth offenses and make prosecution the rare alternative. We don’t need new revenue to fund this; counties could transfer funds currently being spent on prosecuting youth to community-based programs that can provide alternatives to prosecution. The hardest part of making diversion more accessible is the mind-shift required to make necessary and long-overdue change.