NEWS

Community Diversion Programs Prove Helpful for Justice-Involved Kids

community based diversion program illustration

Catherine Song / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • Youth incarceration is often connected to childhood trauma
  • Diversion programs and similar interventions can help address these issues and lower recidivism rates.


The United States imprisons the most people the world—over 2.3 million individuals—an incarceration rate that is over five times higher than a majority of its counterparts. This number surpasses much larger countries, including China, known for its dense population and strict authoritarian regime.

According to the ACLU, youth are not exempt from these high numbers of imprisonment, as over 60,000 individuals under the age of 18 are within either prisons or detention centers on any given day.

Many studies have been done to determine both the contributing factors to behavioral issues that result in youth incarceration, alongside potential interventions and programming that can lower these rates and the rates of recidivism.

According to a new report out of Case Western Reserve University's Behavioral Juvenile Justice Initiative (BHJJ), community diversion programs can have a significant impact on actually helping kids who are caught up in the justice system, and improving their odds of staying out of trouble in the future.

What Did the Study Show?

Trauma as the Origin of Behavioral Issues

The BHJJ is a program focused on transforming the ways we work with justice-involved youths who are suffering from substance use and/or mental health issues. Instead of keeping them detained, the program diverts them to evidence-based health services in the community that can help combat the issues they face. The BHJJ provides a better understanding of not only how to help kids avoid the justice system in the future, but also how they ended up there in the first place.

Haley Neidich, LCSW

The system, itself, is designed to further traumatize these individuals and is not built in a way to provide any meaningful rehabilitation or guidance during the legal process. System-induced trauma is very real both for youth and adults involved in the justice system

— Haley Neidich, LCSW

Researchers found that over 20% of those who had been enrolled in the program dealt with the murder of a loved one. Mental health disorders also were prevalent, which may be connected to the high rates of substance abuse—a coping mechanism known to replace adequate but often inaccessible mental health services.

Jeff Kretschmar, PhD, co-author of the study and the research associate professor at the university's Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education says, "The majority of justice-involved youth have a history of mental health and/or substance-use issues, and have experienced a great deal of trauma."

It is important to note that youth involvement with the justice system generally has ties to trauma, discrimination, or the combination of the two. There are serious racial disparities when it comes to the incarcerated population, regardless of age, with Black and Brown individuals making up a majority, and LGBTQ+ folks’ presence on the rise.

There are links between previous trauma in the lives of children and their involvement with the criminal justice system. “The main cause of youth recidivism is a lack of a support system at home to support the child in improving their behaviors and creating meaningful relationships to bolster their positive choices,” says Haley Neidich, LCSW.

How Programs Like the BHJJ Can Help

The encouraging results of Ohio's diversion program showed that the youths who engaged reduced their overall contact with the carceral system by over 80%. Researchers and the program developers are interested in remaining current with the changing needs of youth and behavioral interventions.

Their methodology has proven effective thus far, with less than 4% of youth reported being incarcerated after the program, and a majority of participants reporting significant decreases in trauma responses.

Divya K. Chhabra, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist says, "A good program considers the child's actual situation, the limitations that it brings, and how to think resourcefully. [This can include] evidence-based therapies, trying to have family involvement as much as possible in the treatment, trauma-informed principles, the principles of restorative justice, involving multiple services to account for stressors, such as employment, school, housing, and more that undeniably interact with a child's ability to succeed and avoid the system."

Haley Neidich, LCSW

A majority of individuals who end up in the justice system have experienced complex trauma throughout their lives which may have directly or indirectly contributed to their involvement with the system to begin with.

— Haley Neidich, LCSW

Incarceration as Continued Trauma

Data shows that involvement with the justice system actually exacerbates the harm that youth and young adults have experienced. Neidich says, “A majority of individuals who end up in the justice system have experienced complex trauma throughout their lives, which may have directly or indirectly contributed to their involvement with the system to begin with."

"The system, itself, is designed to further traumatize these individuals and is not built in a way to provide any meaningful rehabilitation or guidance during the legal process. System-induced trauma is very real both for youth and adults involved in the justice system," she adds.

Chhabra says, “We all know jails, juvenile detention centers and prisons are often characterized by harsh conditions, whether this means increased risk of physical and/or sexual violence, isolation, or lack of access to resources that allow youth to grow and flourish. Many claim the justice system is meant to be 'rehabilitative,' but the research shows that it often isn't.”

Unaddressed Issues Connected to Recidivism

When trauma continues to live on unaddressed, the problems do not fade. In reality, the opposite is true, causing increased complications for the individuals later in life.

Neidich says, “The most concerning long-term implication of unaddressed trauma is chronic mental illness symptoms, substance abuse and dependence, suicide, and recidivism. Concerning generational trauma, the implications of unaddressed trauma is that there is a higher potential for an individual to perpetuate traumatic environments for their children, continuing the trauma cycle.” 

Children are in need of prevention and advocacy services prior to trauma exposure, but unfortunately even with increased initiatives, it can not always be avoided. It is important to familiarize ourselves with the varied symptoms of trauma and coping, and address it as soon as possible with compassion.

Often, these responses are simply labeled as behavioral issues and never handled properly, if at all. Chhabra says, "Trauma is too often unaddressed and only the 'bad behaviors' are treated...focus on their strengths and genuinely believe in them!”

In addition to supporting the youth on an individual level as much as possible, advocating for policy changes that fund more programs like the BHJJ is a necessity. Neidich says, “We can vote for the politicians and the policies that are going to prioritize programs where funds are directed to at-risk youth. Educational opportunities, safe housing, employment opportunities and mental health support need to be readily available to all at-risk youth and families who require them.”

What This Means For You

There are several factors throughout a person's life that can lead them to incarceration, many of which are examples of an unfair system—from racial disparities to the lack of trauma-informed training for educators, to the insensitivity of the carceral system as a whole.

This data bolsters the argument that community-based programming that focuses both on an individual's needs and creating supportive and safe spaces have a far better impact on both the youth and the community.

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2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dijk JJM van, Kesteren J van, Smit P. Criminal victimisation in international perspective: key findings from the 2004-2005 ICVS and EU ICS. Boom Juridische Uitgevers: Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek-en Documentatiecentrum; 2007.

  2. Butcher, Fredrick; Kretschmar, Jeff; Yang, Liuhong; et al. An evaluation of Ohio's behavioral health/juvenile justice (BHJJ) initiative. Published August 2020.