Key findings

  • There is evidence that diversion programmes can reduce offending compared to formal criminal justice processes and can be cost-effective.
  • Net widening should be avoided – so that diversion is a replacement rather than a supplement to formal criminal justice processes – while ensuring that eligibility criteria is not too restrictive, helping to maximise the potential benefits of diversion.
  • Assessment is crucial, and screening by competent staff must be available at each stage of the youth justice system. Data sharing between partner agencies needs to be formalised and as easy as possible.
  • Effective diversion requires substantive services to be available locally, with a range of options in place. There should be a focus on minimising labelling and preventing criminal/disclosable records.
  • Having dedicated diversion staff can help to build relationships and ensure that diversion work has a clear identity. Processing of diversion cases should be swift and easy for police, while children should have a clear understanding and expectations (adhering to procedural justice).
  • Effective monitoring of outcomes and feedback to partners should be embedded within schemes.


There is a strong evidence base that youth diversion is a better way of addressing low-level criminal behaviour than formal criminal justice processing. Youth diversion can reduce crime, cut costs, and lead to better outcomes for children.

Diversion is a term that can refer to several different concepts and has no fixed meaning in the law in England and Wales. The two most common concepts are diversion from court and diversion at point of arrest. However, the term is flexible and is sometimes used in the sense of non-crime diversion (for children under the age of 10 who are not criminally responsible) and sometimes pre-emptively as a synonym for prevention work; diversion is a closely linked concept to prevention but can be distinguished by the requirement for a linked offence.

There are a number of different models for delivering diversionary work. Some models use a decision-making panel to decide on an appropriate intervention or disposal for a child, and often the range of available options is broad, from charging the child (and hence sending them to court), to the use of out-of-court-disposals like a youth caution or conditional caution, to diversionary interventions. The video below, produced by the Centre for Justice Innovation, provides a helpful overview of youth diversion.

Disclaimer: an external platform has been used to host this video. Recommendations for further viewing may appear at the end of the video and are beyond our control.

The number of children diverted from formal justice is not known, although the numbers of children receiving a caution or sentence have fallen dramatically; around 15,800 children in the year ending March 2021, a fall of 82 per cent compared to ten years previously. Because diversion is not recorded at a national level, there is no national (re)offending data for diverted children. Nor is there any national data on how diversion may have helped children with their unmet needs such as mental or physical health.

Key issues are whether:

  1. children are being diverted from criminal justice measures, or diverted to more appropriate services, the first only requiring that the child be diverted, with the second requiring that appropriate services are available
  2. diversion is away from the youth justice system, or away from offending behaviour, with, again, the first requiring only the diversion and the second suggesting that there should be some work to reduce offending-related factors or strengthen protective factors.

Summary of the evidence

Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness

Studies evaluating the impact of diversion programmes have produced varying results. A meta-analysis of 73 different studies in 2013 found that diversion produced lower reoffending rates than traditional processing, while a meta-analysis of 19 studies of police-led diversion in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK found similar reduced levels of reoffending compared to traditional approaches. Approaches that have shown positive results include family-based programmes and those that develop positive relationships between mentors or facilitators. Those diversionary approaches which develop the resilience of children and their families can facilitate desistance at critical moments.

Youth diversion schemes have the potential to save money across three areas:

  • the immediate saving from avoiding the expensive aspects of formal processing through the involvement of the courts, police and prosecution
  • secondary savings from preventing further offending and the expenses associated both with those offences and the response of the criminal justice system to those crimes
  • tertiary savings can be realised from the opportunity for earlier referral to mental health services, health services and children’s social care. The potential to address unmet needs before they reach the point of crisis is both a moral and a financial good, but this is conditional upon sufficiently robust assessment and a clear referral pathway for the child to access the necessary services.

Targeting and eligibility

Most schemes require a child to admit an offence before they can be considered for diversion. Relaxing this requirement to ‘admits responsibility’ could open up the schemes to those who are more mistrustful of the criminal justice system. Evidence from the Lammy Review suggests that lack of trust of formal authorities, and a corresponding unwillingness to admit to an offence amongst Black children, particularly Black boys, might be behind the youth justice system’s current racial disparities.

Research suggests that diversion from formal justice for children may be valuable beyond the first diversion, while considering whether a child’s offending has become habitual and persistent. Research linking types of offence to persistent offending careers does not provide sufficient evidence to exclude certain offence types from diversion schemes, although the gravity of a particular offence might be sufficient to make diversion inappropriate.

Importantly, diversion should not be used for those who would not, in the absence of a diversion service, have received a court or out-of-court disposal. Failing to adhere to this principle can lead to net widening, working against the principle of diverting from the criminal justice system and the potential for stigmatisation or labelling effects. It can help to have clearly established guidelines shared with partners, particularly referring partners (almost always the police), that specify the target population for diversion. Monitoring may also be required to ensure that the availability of a diversion service is not affecting behaviours inappropriately, e.g. arresting in the hope that diversion will allow access to required services.

Key requirements for effective schemes/programmes

Screening and assessment: Well-informed, analytical and personalised assessment is the starting point for effective work with children. Since diversion often involves addressing unmet needs, an assessment is required to understand just what those needs are. Sufficiently early assessment can inform key decisions, e.g. police decisions, disposal panels, courts and custody admissions.

Assessment should be proportionate to the nature of the child’s offending and their circumstances. It should incorporate all available sources of information and seek to understand the whole context of the child’s life, and be undertaken by competent and experienced practitioners who can engage the child. At the same time, the tool to be used should reflect the specific programme/provision, e.g. a diversion service with mental health partners should be using standardised tools to screen for mental health needs.

Referral processes: Successful schemes require police ‘buy in’ and this is more likely if the referral process is prompt, easily understood, and recognised as a positive outcome:

  • promptly means that, after arrest, the referral should begin immediately. This means that the child can avoid any unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system and that delays are avoided. This has the advantage of getting the child to required services quicker and also reduces the potential for further criminalisation
  • processes need to be simple and easy to follow, and based on a strong shared protocol. Some successful schemes have used simple visual representations to help officers make referrals, backed up through training by diversion staff (police staff can move operational areas, making refresher training necessary to keep the current officers informed)
  • to avoid any perverse incentives from sanction detection targets, diversion must be recognised as a positive outcome, preventing those officers most under pressure from such targets from seeing the scheme as working against them.

Local services: The benefits of partnerships and shared visions with other services have been highlighted as essential. Crucially, diversion requires other substantive services to be available locally, with a range of options in place to address unmet needs and welfare concerns, including through youth work, community activities, and educational interventions. Where the range of options is insufficient, there is a risk that children will be assigned to what is available, rather than what is needed. The focus should be upon delivering services and interventions which are needed in as informal a manner as is practical (maintaining the distinction from the more formal criminal justice system).

Data sharing: Collated data on the children’s needs should be shared between stakeholders to ensure that the required services can be provided. Formal memoranda of understanding (MoU) between agencies can be helpful, clearly laying out what should be shared and how. These MoUs should be easily accessible to help ease any frictions in agency communications.

Minimise labelling and stigma: Diversion needs to avoid stigmatising the children that are to be diverted, e.g. through maintaining a clear separation from criminal justice settings and delivery, and through the avoidance of any disclosable records. The benefits of not getting a criminal record – a potential motivator for compliance – should be clearly explained to the child.

Dedicated staffing: The most consistently cited factor in improving the life chances of a child who is at risk of, or involved in, offending behaviour is the development of positive relationships. Having dedicated and skilled diversion case workers can support engagement and focused work with children, and help ensure that this work does not come second to or become mixed with statutory case work.

Expectations and understanding: Research has found that some children do not have a clear understanding of diversion and what it entails. Creating a process that the child views as fair – a key component in procedural justice – can help with engagement. Setting expectations upfront, combined with a full explanation of the consequences of non-engagement, can help the child to understand appropriate behaviour and the boundaries around the diversion. One approach is to employ a diversion agreement, outlining what the interventions will consist of and what behaviour is expected of the child, which is then co-signed by the child.

Monitoring and evaluation: Feedback on children’s progress to the police or other referring agencies should be built into the design of the diversion scheme. This can maintain confidence, encouraging the police and other agencies to continue to engage. Data should also be gathered to support process and outcome evaluations. External advisory panels can be useful to analyse performance, determine areas for improvement, and hold managers to account.

Improving diversion for children with SEND

There is an over-representation of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in the youth justice system, and barriers have been identified which may prevent them from being diverted. To overcome these barriers, the following approaches have been highlighted as important:

  • timely screening/assessment and identification of needs
  • comprehensive practitioner training
  • co-locating specialists within youth justice services
  • adjusting communication approaches and environments
  • making practitioners responsible for engagement
  • co-producing intervention plans
  • empowering families to support engagement.
Key references

Bateman, T., Brodie, I., Day, A-M., Pitts, J. and Osidipe, T. (2023). ‘Race’, disproportionality and diversion from the youth justice system: a review of the literature. Luton: University of Bedfordshire.

Centre for Justice Innovation (2019). Valuing youth diversion: a toolkit for practitioners. London: Centre for Justice Innovation.

Farrell, J., Betsinger, A. and Hammond, P. (2018). Best practices in youth diversion: Literature review for the Baltimore City Youth Diversion Committee. University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Gibson, R. (2022). Effective practice in Diversion from Prosecution, Info Sheet 105. Glasgow: Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice.

Kilkelly, U., Forde,L., Hurley, E., Lambert, S., Swirak, K., Kelleher, D. and Buckley, S. (2022). Ensuring the collaborative reform of youth justice in Ireland in line with international research and evidence-based approaches. University College Cork.

Ofori, A., Robin-D’Cruz, C., Jolaoso, B. and Whitehead, S. (2022). Children and young people’s voices on youth diversion and disparity. London: Centre for Justice Innovation.

Robin-D’Cruz, C. (2023). Exploring the Responsiveness of Youth Diversion to Children with SEND. London: Centre for Justice Innovation.

Schwalbe, C.S., Gearing, R.E., MacKenzie, M.J., Brewer, K.B. and Ibrahim, R. (2012). ‘A meta-analysis of experimental studies of diversion programs for juvenile offenders’, Clinical Psychology Review, 32(1), pp. 26-33.

Wilson, H. and Hoge, R. (2012). ‘Diverting attention to what works: Evaluating the effectiveness of a youth diversion program’, Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 11(4), pp. 313-331.

Youth Justice Board (2023). Prevention and Diversion Project – final report. London: Youth Justice Board.

Back to Specific types of delivery Next: Out-of-court disposals

Last updated: 27 October 2023