Four ways to improve youth diversion

Youth diversion can change a child’s life at a critical time. NCB has conducted a review of existing research to find out how diversion programmes can be improved, so more children and young people can benefit from them.

by Lily Strange and Dr Jaimee Mallion

group of teenagers and young people talking

What is diversion? 

Diversion aims to reduce reoffending by diverting children and young people away from formal criminal justice processes and outcomes, such as conviction, and custody, through an alternative community-based intervention. Children can be diverted at different stages in the criminal justice system (e.g., at point of arrest, before being charged, or in court).  

Diversion is important for children and young people because it prevents their labelling as “offenders” or “criminals”, it avoids the experience of the criminal justice system, it supports the reintegration and developing of pro-social behaviours, and it connects young people to support services. In short, diversion can change the track of a child’s life. 

However, despite the benefits of diversion for children and young people, families, and wider society, there is limited knowledge on what makes diversion effective. Commissioned by the Youth Endowment Fund (YEF), NCB conducted a systematic review to explore effective youth diversion strategies in England and Wales.

What did we find?

1. There are a multitude of barriers and facilitators to engaging children and young people in diversion programmes. 

Using confusing and inaccessible language and failing to set clear expectations were barriers in effective diversion. Encouraging aspirations, building trust and proactively engaging with children and young people and their families throughout the diversion process promotes engagement in diversion.  

2. Access to diversion programmes can be unequitable. 

Referral to diversion programmes often relies on professionals’ discretion, meaning there is a lack of consistency in access. For instance, children from minority ethnic backgrounds are less likely to access diversion than white children, whilst a lack of specialist interventions for disabled children and young people, children and young people with special educational needs, or those who are care-experienced, can limit access to diversion.  

3. Assessment tools are limited by a small evidence-base. 

When deciding upon the type and amount of intervention, practitioners often use assessment tools to establish the risk of reoffending. Yet, these tools can over-emphasise risk of reoffending, whilst little is known about their effectiveness when used to determine appropriate interventions.  

4. Effective inter-agency collaboration is critical for ensuring the success of diversion services. 

No single organisation can provide support to meet all needs of justice involved children and young people. Establishing strong inter-agency partnerships ensures children and young people, particularly those with complex needs, are well supported. Yet, this is hindered by conflicting cultures, resource competition, and power imbalances between organisations.

Recommendations for change 

1. Empower children and young people’s voices and nurture their aspirations throughout the diversion process.  

Practitioners should work collaboratively with children and young people to understand and identify their needs, interests, and personal goals. This allows support to be tailored to meet children and young people’s individual needs, enabling them to attain their ambitions without offending. Throughout the diversion process, it is important to ensure children and young people’s voices are respected and actively considered in decision-making processes. They should be provided with feedback about how their views influenced outcomes. 

2. Address ethnic disparity in diversion practices, improve understanding of and ways to best support disabled children and young people and those with special educational needs, and care-experienced children and young people.  

Current practices and assessment tools should be examined to address any biases leading to an overrepresentation of minority ethnic children and young people in the criminal justice system. Additional support needs to be developed/available for disabled children and young people, children and young people with special educational needs, or those who are care-experienced to ensure they can access diversion practices. This may involve specialised training and collaboration with disability and child welfare organisations. More research is needed to understand children and young people’s experiences in the criminal justice system and to develop strategies which promote fairness and equitable access to diversion. 

3. Improve inter-agency and multi-agency collaboration. 

To ensure agencies collaborate well, procedures must be first put into place enabling and emphasising the importance of information sharing. Highlighting shared commitments emphasises the similarities in values and culture between agencies. Developing a clear communication, management, and resource plan at the outset of any collaboration can help mitigate problems from arising in collaborations. 

4. Strengthen and expand the evidence base on youth diversion. 

Overall, there is a lack of data on which children and young people are diverted, how they are diverted (which type and length of intervention they are offered and receive), as well as the outcomes for each child. We encourage all Youth Justice Services to consistently collect data on youth diversion to support and develop the evidence base. There is also limited robust, high-quality evidence in this area. We need more research, using larger samples and more rigorous methodologies, to improve our understanding of what effective diversion practices look like. More empirical research would also contribute to the development of reliable strategies and practices for enhancing inter-agency collaboration within the youth justice system. We echo the YEF’s recommendation of improving data collection practices nationally.  

Diversion can be a powerful tool to change children and young people’s lives for the better and protect them from future involvement in crime. It is essential to ensure the most effective practices are implemented, and that all children have access to the best support available. 

Read our evidence review here.

Read the YEF’s guidance report here.