Master's Project Title:

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Role of Diversion Programming

MCH Student:

Ashley Wahl

Date of Defense:

August 5, 2013


Background: Zero tolerance (ZT) policies in school s have increased reliance on out-of-school suspension and juvenile justice referrals for handling disruptive adolescent behavior. This phenomenon has been termed the school-to-prison pipeline. Research suggests that, rather than improving school safety and increasing academic achievement, students who are suspended or who have contact with the justice system are more likely to dropout, retain a grade, fail academically, or fail to graduate on time. Furthermore, ZT policies are not in line with adolescent brain development, which may make adherence to such rules particularly difficult for youth. It has also been estimated that more than 65% of youth in detention centers have a diagnosable emotional or behavioral disorder, compared to 15- 20% of youth from community samples. These findings indicate that there are unmet service needs in this adolescent subpopulation that may be contributing to offending. Youth who become involved with the justice system and do not complete high school are at an increased risk for negative long-term health and social outcomes.

Results: Ten diversion programs were selected for this critical literature review. Findings about the effectiveness of diversion programs in reducing recidivism were mixed, but several types of practices are recommended to improve diversion programs. Screening and assessment for mental health and substance abuse problems prior to enrollment in diversion programming is recommended, in addition to the inclusion of evidence-based counseling services in diversion programing.

Conclusion: Services provided by diversion programs should be family-centered, culturally appropriate, individualized, comprehensive, and flexible in order to meet the needs of justice involved youth. Providing this type of programming will require service sectors such as juvenile justice, law enforcement, court systems, education, mental health and substance abuse, and social services to form partnerships, eliminating questions of service delivery jurisdiction.