Diversion: A Hidden Key to Combating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice

September 1, 2022
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Article and Report by Richard Mendel, The Sentencing Project
Read the full executive summary here – https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/diversion-a-hidden-key-to-combating-racial-and-ethnic-disparities-in-juvenile-justice/

The Sentencing Project released an in-depth analysis about the juvenile justice system’s unequal and limited use of diversion from court involvement, particularly for Black youth. Nationwide in 2019, 52% of delinquency cases involving white youth were handled informally (diverted), far higher than the share of cases diverted involving Black youth (40%). The glaring disparity between Black and white youth can be seen within every major offense category.

The report, “Diversion: A Hidden Key to Combating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice,” examines decades of research showing how educational, career, and public safety outcomes are better for youth diverted away from juvenile courts. It provides a primer on diversion and its impact on racial equity. Specifically, the report shows that:

  • Compared to youth who are formally involved in court, youth diverted from court have far lower likelihood of subsequent arrests, are far less likely to be incarcerated, commit less violence, have higher rates of school completion and college enrollment, and earn higher incomes in adulthood.
  • Disparities in diversion result both from subjective biases against youth and families of color and from seemingly neutral diversion rules and practices that cause disproportionate harm to youth of color either by unnecessarily limiting eligibility for diversion or by making it difficult for youth of color to complete diversion successfully.
  • A number of states and localities in recent years have adopted new strategies to expand and improve diversion, many of which show substantial promise.
  • However, efforts to expand diversion opportunities to date have most often lacked an explicit and determined focus on reducing racial and ethnic disparities – an essential ingredient for success.

Overwhelming research finds that diverting youth from the court system yields better outcomes for young people’s futures and for public safety. Yet diversion remains sorely underutilized, especially for youth of color, and unequal treatment in diversion is a key driver for even larger disparities in confinement later in the process.

The full report is available here.