Juvenile Diversion


Juvenile Diversion programs are typically for first-time youth offenders who have been arrested for drug or alcohol-related crimes (e.g., driving while intoxicated, underage possession of alcohol, disorderly behavior resulting from intoxication). As an alternative to processing offenders through the court system, resulting in fines or incarceration, diverted youth receive sanctions and services designed to address risk factors that contribute to alcohol-related offenses. Diversion programs vary in length, services provided, and requirements for parent/guardian involvement.


  • To promote appropriate care and treatment of youth
  • To reduce young offender exposure to other delinquent youth

Typical Elements

  • Prevention champions and stakeholders identify and collaborate with key leaders in all relevant systems (e.g., law enforcement, juvenile court judges, community agencies, and social service providers) (MacPhail & Weist, 1995;  Models for Change Juvenile Diversion Workgroup, 2011; NHTSA, 2001; Russell, Wood, & Domeier, 1998).
  • Stakeholders and key leaders are involved from the beginning to conduct program planning. In order to determine the scope and components of the program, the group can consider: (MacPhail & Weist, 1995):
    • Learning about existing state and local sanctions for first-time youth offenders.
    • Identifying relevant and available community-based services (e.g., mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, job skills training).
    • Determining an appropriate mix of sanctions and services, ensuring that community leaders and program organizers have the resources necessary to coordinate and supervise them.
  • A lead agency that has been identified to house the program (MacPhail & Weist, 1995; Models for Change Juvenile Diversion Workgroup, 2011).
  • Written agreements or memoranda of understanding—that include clear confidentiality and information-sharing guidelines—with all agencies involved. This helps to protect participants’ right to privacy and confidentiality while ensuring that each agency receives the information needed to provide appropriate and effective services (MacPhail & Weist, 1995; Models for Change Juvenile Diversion Workgroup, 2011).
  • A program manual that outlines the diversion program’s design and operating procedures. A comprehensive manual would (MacPhail & Weist, 1995;  Models for Change Juvenile Diversion Workgroup, 2011; NHTSA, 2001):
    • Identify program goals and objectives
    • Establish participation criteria (e.g., first offense, no other charges, no major co-occurring conditions that might require more intensive services than the diversion program can provide, offender is nonviolent)
    • Include information regarding state and federal confidentiality laws and regulations
    • Establish guidelines to ensure timely participant screening and assessment
    • Include a grievance process and procedures for participants and their families
    • Define consequences for non-compliance with the diversion program (e.g., loss of driver license)
      • Note: State and/or local law can set the boundaries of services and sanctions to be imposed (e.g., establish a minimum that must be imposed or leave the decision to the discretion of the judge) and/or stipulate the consequences for non-compliance (e.g., referral back to the justice system for further action).
  • Qualified staff to implement the program, from initial identification and screening of offenders to delivery of educational and support services, verification of compliance, and enforcement of consequences for noncompliance. Some diversion programs may want to enlist community-based volunteers to help run the program (Panzer, 1997).
  • Training for all personnel involved in the diversion program so everyone understands the program’s purpose and functions, including their specific roles and responsibilities. Ideally, each training would be tailored to meet the unique needs and perspectives of personnel. For example, prosecutors and other court personnel may need to learn about the nature of addiction while community-based providers might need to learn about public safety and law enforcement procedures (McPhail & Weist, 1995).
  • A communication process for explaining the advantages of diversion (e.g., reduction of legal fees/fines, no criminal record), program requirements and expectations, and consequences for non-compliance to participating youth and their parents/legal guardians.
  • An assessment process to screen participants for risk factors/health-related concerns (e.g., mental health or substance abuse disorders) and evaluate needs. Ideally, programs would use a valid and reliable risk assessment tool for adolescents (MacPhail & Weist, 1995; Models for Change Juvenile Diversion Workgroup, 2011).
  • Referral to treatment or psycho-educational programs and services based on identified needs. Options, which will vary depending on available resources, can include (McPhail & Weist, 1995):
    • Mental health treatment 
    • Substance use education and counseling
    • Family counseling and parenting skill development
    • Education and tutorial services
    • Job skills training
    • Victim awareness classes and activities
    • Service learning programs such as community service
      • Note: One popular program model institutes teen courts where the offender’s peers run the court procedures and determine sanctions (Butts, Buck, & Coggeshall, 2002).
  • Contracts with participants (and their families) that describe the specific services they will receive to mitigate the risk of re-offending (McPhail & Weist, 1995).
  • High quality service delivery. Diversion programs differ broadly in length of duration, ranging from a few months to over a year depending on the program and the particular offenses. Research suggests that effective programs are at least six months long and include activities with caring adults (Russell, Wood, & Domeier, 1998).
  • Program and community leaders collaborate to ensure that:
    • Charges for alcohol-related offenses are dropped after participants complete the terms of their contracts (NHTSA, 2001).
    • Consequences for non-compliance (as defined in the initial program design) are imposed if a participant does not fulfill the terms of his/her contract. (NHTSA, 2001).


First-time youth offenders who have been arrested for misdemeanor (and in some cases felony crimes)


No outcome data found for role of juvenile diversion programs in preventing underage drinking and/or its consequences.


Combining Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Treatment with Diversion for Juveniles in the Justice System: Chapter 4—Planning Juvenile Diversion to AOD Abuse Treatment

Community How To Guide on…Prevention and Education: Appendix 2—Tips on Establishing Diversion and Court Watch Programs

Detention Diversion Advocacy: An Evaluation

G98-1366 Establishing Juvenile Diversion in Your Community

Juvenile Diversion Guidebook

Juvenile Diversion: Research and Recommendations for Program Implementation in Waukesha County

Minnesota Diversion Guidebook

Minnesota Juvenile Diversion: A Summary of Statewide Practices and Programming

Nebraska Juvenile Pretrial Diversion Guidelines and Resources

Sentencing and Dispositions of Youth DUI and Other Alcohol Offenses: A Guide for Judges and Prosecutors


National Institute of Justice: Crime Solutions


Butts, J. A., Buck, J., & Coggeshall, M. B. (2002, April). Research report: The impact of teen court on young offenders. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

McPhail, M. W., & Wiest, B. M. (1995). Chapter 4—Planning juvenile diversion to AOD abuse treatment. In Combining alcohol and other drug abuse treatment with diversion for juveniles in the justice system. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64485/

Models for Change Juvenile Diversion Workgroup. (2011). Juvenile diversion guidebook. Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, National Juvenile Defender Center, National Youth Screening and Assessment Project, and Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). (2001). Community how to guide on…prevention and education: Appendix 2—Tips on establishing diversion and court watch programs. Retrieved from https://one.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/alcohol/Community%20Guides%20HTML/Book4_Prevention.html#App2

Panzer, C. (1997). Reducing juvenile recidivism through pre-trial diversion programs: A community’s involvement. Journal of Juvenile Law, 18, 186.

Russell, S. T., Wood, S., & Domeier, S. (1998). G98-1366 Establishing juvenile diversion in your community. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/tdad/usanebraskaestablishingdiversioncommunity98.pdf