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Michigan State Diversion Project

Ages 10-18

Rating: Level 3


The Michigan State Diversion Project is a behavioral treatment program for arrested juveniles that uses college students as the principal caseworkers. The program is based on three recurring themes in research and program experience with juvenile offenders: 1) youths respond better if treated outside the juvenile justice system, 2) a youth’s community and family are the natural context for intervention, 3) and service delivery by nonprofessionals may be both more effective and less costly than relying on credentialed professionals.

The caseworkers, mainly juniors and seniors, are given 8 weeks of training in behavioral intervention and advocacy followed by 18 weeks of intensive supervision. During the 18-week intervention the caseworkers spend 6 to 8 hours per week with the juvenile in their home, school, and community.


The program was evaluated using an experimental design. Referred youths were randomly assigned to one of several treatment strategies. The action strategy (n=76) used behavioral contracting and child advocacy techniques to address the problem areas of the youth’s life. The family focus strategy (n=24) was similar but concentrated wholly on working with the youth’s family. The relational strategy (n=12) involved less emphasis on advocacy and behavioral contracting and greater emphasis on developing empathy and communication between the caseworker and the client. The court context strategy (n=12) offered a similar proactive approach but used a caseworker from the juvenile court to train and supervise the student workers instead of the psychology graduate students used as supervisors in the other strategies. Finally, some youths were assigned to a placebo strategy (n=29) in which workers received little training and simply offered recreational activities to their clients, while others were assigned to a control group (n=60) and participated in normal court processing. Clients averaged 1.5 petitions to court for a wide range of person and property offenses; nearly 60 percent, however, were charged with either larceny or breaking and entering. The sample had a mean age of 14.2, was 83 percent male, and 26 percent were from an ethnic minority. The student caseworkers had an average age of 20.4, and 16 percent were minorities.


The evaluation found that the active strategies that occurred outside the juvenile system (action and family focus), along with the relational strategy, tended to work better than those used for the placebo group. Moreover, the placebo group worked better than the control group and the court context group, but the court context group did worse than the control group. For example, 67 percent of the court context youth and 62 percent of the control group had one or more court petitions during the 2 years following the intervention, compared with 38 percent of the action group, 46 percent of the family focus group, and 33 percent of the relational group. The placebo group fell in the middle (52 percent).

Thus, the evidence suggests that active, hands-on intervention of several kinds works better than normal court processing of juvenile offenders, but only if they were thoroughly separated from the system. The researchers note that these findings should be interpreted with caution because the samples were small, and no significant effects were found for measures of self-reported delinquency.


Davidson, William S., Robin Redner, Craig H. Blakely, C.M. Mitchell, and James G. Emshoff. 1987. “Diversion of Juvenile Offenders: An Experimental Comparison.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 55(1):68–75.


William S. Davidson
Michigan State Diversion Program
135 Snyder Hall
Michigan State University, Department of Psychology
East Lansing, MI 48824–1117
Phone: (517) 353-5015
Fax: (517) 432-2476
Web site: