Diversion: A Hidden Key To Combating Racial And Ethnic Disparities In Juvenile Justice


In 2019, courts diverted 52 percent of white youth from formal processing, compared to only 44 percent of Hispanic youth and 40 percent of Black youth.

Diverting youth from formal involvement in the juvenile justice system can lead to greater success in education and reduced recidivism. However, pre-arrest and pre-court diversion programs are underutilized in the United States. The United States only diverts 49 percent of juvenile cases from formal processing compared to Germany, which diverts 76 percent of its cases, and Finland at 83 percent. This report highlights the lack of diversion programs in the juvenile justice system and how racial and ethnic disparities in diversion are deep, pervasive, and longstanding. The report also examines existing diversion program policies and practices that are disadvantageous to youth of color and provides suggestions to states and local jurisdictions for expanding diversion opportunities to reduce disparities in the juvenile court process. 

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Key Findings:

  • The use of diversion has not increased in the past 10-15 years, but the gap between white and Black youth has grown from 20 percent to 30 percent from 2005 to 2019.
  • Black youth were only diverted from 49 percent of drug offense cases, whereas 60 percent of white youth were.
  • Disparities in diversion emerge from a mix of subjective biases, rules that limit youth eligibility, fees/costs to participate in diversion programs, and lack of support to youth and their families.

Efforts to Address Diversion Disparities

  • After Utah prohibited the prosecution of youth for an array of low-level offenses, the share of youth receiving diversion nearly doubled from 31 percent to 59 percent in FFY 2015 and 2016.
  • Several States– including California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Utah – in an attempt to remove barriers to participation that disproportionately impact youth of color, have prohibited or minimized fines and fees associated with diversion and probation. 
  • Diversion overrides fell by 91 percent for Black youth in Jefferson Country, Kentucky, after state leaders coaxed prosecutors and judges to reduce their use of overrides for diversion programs.


  • Expand the use of diversion in juvenile justice reform.
  • States and local systems should emphasize reducing racial and ethnic disparities by utilizing racial impact statements.
  • Abandon practices and policies that disproportionately reduce the probability of participation and success of youth of color.
  • Collect, track, and report progress in data regarding reducing disparities and expanding opportunities for diversion.
Richard A Mendel
The Sentencing Project