Getting Juvenile Probation Right

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Our nation’s juvenile justice systems have made a lot of progress. We’ve reduced detention at the front end of the process and incarceration at the back end, raised the age of criminal responsibility and expanded the use of evidence-based practices—all while preserving public safety.

But this encouraging wave of improvement has yet to influence the most common disposition in juvenile justice: probation.

Handcuffed by conflicting and often unrealistic expectations, and beset by overwhelming caseloads, juvenile probation remains deeply flawed both in concept and execution.

Despite the best efforts of probation professionals, probation often pulls young people deeper into the system without offering the support and guidance that would put them on a better path.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Given research on adolescent behavior and brain development, and evidence about interventions that consistently reduce delinquency, the knowledge exists now to get juvenile probation right. As the most common disposition in juvenile justice, with nearly 400,000 young people put on probation every year, turning that knowledge into action presents an enormous opportunity for improving the entire juvenile justice system.

Turning this opportunity into reality, however, will require far more sweeping changes than have been considered to date. Current reform strategies are beneficial as far as they go, but they ignore several critical areas.

As the Annie E. Casey Foundation has detailed in a new report, probation requires a fundamental transformation with new and expanded priorities.

A Clear Mission

 Probation suffers a crippling lack of clarity around mission and goals. Is it compliance, rehabilitation, behavior change? The answer varies from state to state, and even officer to officer.

Probation transformation cannot succeed until probation leaders and key partners resolve to refashion probation into a targeted, purposeful and developmentally appropriate intervention aimed at promoting personal growth, behavior change and long-term success — not a catch-all disposition focused on surveillance and compliance.

Divert Far More Youth From Formal Processing

 We must start by diverting more youth from juvenile court.

Community organizations, human service agencies and families — not the courts — should be responsible for responding to low-level offenses committed by young people. As the Council of State Governments Justice Center notes, “Juvenile justice systems can do more harm than good by actively intervening with youth who are at low risk of reoffending.”

Yet, many youth placed on probation today have limited or no previous court histories and pose little risk to public safety. That needs to change.

Emphasis on Rewards, Not Sanctions

 For generations, juvenile probation has imposed long standardized lists of probation rules, then threatened punishment (including incarceration) for youth who fail to comply.

Research makes clear that this approach is fundamentally backwards. Youth respond far better to rewards and incentives for positive behavior than to the threat of punishment for misbehavior.

Commitment to Racial and Ethnic Equity

 Probation plays a significant role in perpetuating the vast over-representation of African-American, Latino and other youth of color in juvenile justice. Indeed, 68 percent of youth held in residential custody in 2015 for a technical violation —breaking probation rules — were youth of color.

Yet surveys find that few probation professionals regularly analyze data to determine where disparities are occurring, and few develop new strategies with their colleagues to reduce disparities. This is unacceptable; probation has a duty to lead in the search for solutions.

Stronger Family and Community Partnerships

 The most powerful influences on court-involved youth for the long term come from their families and from others in their communities. Yet relationships between probation departments and families are often fraught, and meaningful partnerships between probation and community organizations are scarce.

The significantly smaller caseloads made possible by the increased use of diversion should enable probation officers not only to develop close, caring and positive relationships with all youth on their caseloads, but also to work intensively with young people’s families.

Meanwhile, probation departments must overcome their longstanding insularity and begin to forge meaningful partnerships with community organizations rooted in neighborhoods, especially those where large concentrations of youth on probation reside.

More Positive Youth Development Opportunities

 Youth involved in the juvenile justice system often live in communities where safe recreational spaces and constructive activities are scarce. Yet juvenile probation typically focuses on imposing rules and monitoring compliance, and perhaps providing treatment for young people’s problems, rather than working with community partners to connect youth with positive role models and provide them opportunities to explore their interests and develop their talents.

Probation transformation means focusing on helping young people build their strengths.

In all these areas, glaring gaps persist between current practices in juvenile probation and the best available information about what works and should work with court-involved youth. We have the knowledge necessary to close these gaps.

Most youth who engage in delinquent conduct, even in serious offending, are amenable to change.

For the sake of our young people, it’s time to get probation right.

Nate Balis directs the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Stephen Bishop is a senior associate at the Casey Foundation and former probation officer. They welcome comments from readers.