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Pre-court diversion

Diverting children who have committed first-time or low level offences away from the formal youth justice system

Estimated impact on violent crime:


Evidence quality:

1 2 3 4 5


1 2 3

Prevention Type

  • Tertiary


  • Diversion

What is it?

Diversion is an approach to preventing reoffending by finding alternatives to formal criminal justice proceedings. Diversion can occur at different points in the criminal justice system: at the point of arrest, before charges are made, or in court through alternative forms of sentencing.

This summary focuses on diversion that takes place before a formal charge and court proceedings. In England and Wales there are two types of pre-court diversion:

  1. Point-of-arrest diversion. Instead of arresting a child, the police refer them to the Youth Offending Team (YOT) or other services for support. This option avoids formal criminal justice processes entirely.
  2. Out-of-court disposals. This could involve a community resolution (resolution of an incident through informal agreement between the parties involved), youth caution (a formal warning issued by the police when it is not in the public interest to prosecute) or youth conditional caution (a youth caution where the child undergoes a compulsory assessment and package of interventions).

The diversion process may support or require the child to complete an intervention programme. This could involve counselling, mental health interventions, employment training or restorative justice.

There are several reasons why pre-court diversion could protect a child against future involvement in crime and violence.

  • Supporting reintegration. Diversion programmes could reduce stigma while supporting children to develop positive skills and reintegrate into their community.
  • Preventing labelling. Charging a child with a criminal offence could label them as a ‘delinquent’ or ‘criminal.’ If a child then identifies or becomes associated with these labels, they may be more likely to reoffend.
  • Avoiding experience of the criminal justice system. Pre-court diversion could reduce reoffending by protecting children from experiencing the criminal justice system. A formal charge and court processing might introduce them to criminal values, attitudes, or techniques.

Is it effective?

On average, pre-court diversion is likely to have a moderate impact on violent crime.

Pre-court diversion leads to greater reductions in reoffending than processing through the courts. The research suggests that pre-court diversion reduces reoffending by 13%. Furthermore, if children are diverted but do commit another offence, this offence is likely to be less serious.

There is also evidence that pre-court diversion has a greater impact than diversion after a charge is made. This provides support for the argument that you can achieve greater impacts by limiting a child’s experience of the criminal justice system.

Current evidence suggests the impact of pre-court diversion has been greater with younger children (aged 12-14) than with older children (aged 15-17).

The research suggests that pre-court diversion reduces reoffending by 13%.

How secure is the evidence?

Our confidence in the estimate of the average impact on violent crime is high.

The estimate is based on a high-quality review of many studies. The available research has directly measured the impact on reoffending but has not separated out the impact on violent reoffending within this. We have not awarded the highest evidence quality rating because there is a lot of variation in the estimates provided by the underlying research. Some studies suggest that pre-court diversion can have a more positive impact while other studies suggest that the impact is smaller.

Most of the research comes from the USA and very few studies have been conducted in England and Wales.

How can you implement it well?

Speed of referral

The research suggests that speed of referral is important and should happen soon after an arrest occurs. Some services aim to increase the speed of referral by making referral as simple and straightforward for the police as possible.

Consider the implications of an arrest

Even arrests or attending a police station for questioning could have labelling implications. Some services respond to this by avoiding arresting children involved in low-level offending. Instead, the children are taken to a safe place to discuss next steps and undertake an initial referral assessment.

Multi-agency collaboration

Effective diversion requires the collaboration of several agencies. The pilot evaluation of the Youth Justice Liaison and Diversion (YJLD) scheme in England and Wales suggested that this could be challenging. Young people reported contact with a “panoply of professional agencies” and some reported feeling let down or disappointed with their experiences and showed some resentment towards intervention attempts. The staff involved in the scheme stated that communication and collaboration across different agencies was a barrier to successful and swift implementation.

One approach to improving multi-agency collaboration might be to locate YOT or YJLD staff in or close to the custody suite so that they can begin to work with children immediately. One study suggested that it may be preferable for staff to be near the custody suite, but not co-located, so they are seen as independent and separate to the police.

How much does it cost?

On average, the cost of pre-court diversion is likely to be low.

This estimate is based on an analysis of 300 UK diversion projects and an evaluation of the Liaison and Diversion Service. In many situations, pre-court diversion is likely to lead to significant cost savings as it prevents the expense of formal processing through the courts.

Topic summary

  • The research suggests that pre-court diversion can reduce both the number and severity of offences.
  • If diversion involves referral to an intervention programme, the selection of intervention programme will likely make a big difference to the overall impact. Other Toolkit topics could provide useful information about the research on relevant approaches.
  • Children with experience of the care system or from a black, asian or ethnic minority background are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system compared to white children. Future work could investigate the role of access to diversion in ensuring a more equitable system.
  • Effective diversion requires the collaboration of several stakeholders, including stakeholders not formally involved in criminal justice.

YEF projects and evaluations

YEF funded a pilot study of Re-Frame programme, delivered by We are With You. The diversion programme worked with 10–17-year-olds in police custody who had been found in possession of class B or C controlled drugs. Two sessions were delivered by qualified youth substance misuse workers, sessions aimed to reduce substance use and offending.

YEF systems guidance – Arrested children: How to keep children safe and reduce reoffending

Centre for Justice Innovation resources
The Centre for Justice Innovations have produced a series of highly practical resources on youth diversion. They include:

  • An online course which covers key evidence and principles
  • Guidance on effective referral systems
  • Research on racial disproportionality

Out of Court Disposals managed by the Police: a review of the evidence
An evidence review on out of court disposals conducted by the University of Cambridge

Youth Justice Board Resource Hub
A large collection of practical resources and evidence.