Racial Inequity Hinders Juvenile Probation Reform: Study

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Sign in the Galleries of Justice Museum, Nottingham, UK. Photo by Elliott Brown via Flickr

Courts must address racial disparities in juvenile probation practices and the alienation of many families and communities from the “system,” in order to achieve a transformation of U.S. juvenile probation practices, according to an Urban Institute study.

The disproportional treatment of minority youth is a significant barrier to efforts aimed at keeping young people from becoming repeat offenders, researchers concluded in a three-year study of reforms instituted in Ohio’s Lucas County and Washington’s Pierce County.

The reforms were supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Probation Transformation Initiative. Researchers said that in the two counties they studied, authorities were hamstrung by deep-seated resentment and distrust on the part of young people, their parents, and community leaders—many of whom felt the system treated minority youth differently.

“Neighborhood isolation and residential racism makes (things) difficult,” said one community representative quoted in the study. “There’s no outlet or jobs for these kids and there’s no hope…I think we need to look at our neighborhood investment and what’s happening [there].”

The authors of the study concurred.

“Developing ways to build trust can be hard, since families impacted by the juvenile justice system often see probation staff as representing ‘the system,’ which can inhibit progress on designing case plans for youth,” they wrote, noting that judges, probation officers and other stakeholders “must be prepared to have difficult conversations about race and equity.”

They added: “Even in Lucas and Pierce Counties, both of which have sizably reduced their placement populations, these successful reform efforts have not automatically resulted in reduced (racial) disparities.”

Lessons Learned

Nevertheless, the study also concluded that in the short time the programs had been implemented, key lessons learned about how to transform the juvenile probation system could help to inform other jurisdictions around the country.

Pierce County, for example, developed an approach called Opportunity-Based Probation (OBP), which offered incentives for youth to get off probation early. It reported that the first cohort of youth completing OBP had low re-offense rates.

Another program called Pathways to Success, described as a “family, team-based approach including a care coordinator, a probation officer, a mentoring component, and parent support,” was adapted by county authorities to improve outcomes for African-American youth.

“We try to get them as early in our system as possible, so they need to have at least one other contact with our system,” one probation supervisor told researchers.

Lucas County created a “misdemeanor services unit” that was used to divert juveniles who committed minor offenses from probation.

Both counties’ efforts emphasized greater engagement with families, and collaborative partnerships with community groups as crucial steps to help young people avoid further entanglement with the justice system.

“We can work with the youth all day, but then the youth has to go home,” said a Lucas County probation officer. “If they’re not supported there, or the family doesn’t know about the work, it’s not effective …. I’ve learned that the families love it—they love to be involved, feel included, see the changes.”

A Pierce County officer added: “We can’t sustain long-term change with these kids without the support of parents… they need to carry on the work with the kids once we step away.”

Probation is the most commonly used disposition in U.S. juvenile courts. Nearly 63 percent of delinquency cases in 2014 resulted in probation, and the number of such dispositions has been rising steadily. Between 1984 and 2014, the use of probation for young people adjudicated delinquent increased by over 5 percent.

And that has only sharpened racial disparities.

In Lucas County, for example, 37 percent of black youth with felony cases received “out-of-home placement,” such as detention facilities or group homes, compared with 7 percent of white youth.

Adolescent Development

Experts in adolescent development have found that many youth fall afoul of the rules imposed by probation because the neural networks responsible for “self-regulation and reward motivation” aren’t fully developed until age 24.

The Annie E. Casey Probation Transformation Initiative was developed in response to these findings, with the aim of finding “developmentally appropriate” means of working with troubled juveniles.

The Initiative’s twin goals were to “divert at least 60 percent of referrals including all youth with low-level offenses and lower-risk levels,” and to “use probation only as a purposeful intervention to support behavior change and long-term success for youth with serious and repeat offenses.”

The study was prepared by Sino Esthappan of the Urban Institute, Johanna Lacoe of Mathematica Policy Research, and Douglas Young of the University of Maryland.

Additional Reading: “Europe’s Rehabilitative Approach to Young Adults Worth Examining by U.S.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a corrected version of an earlier summary, which erroneously tied reductions in youth re-offending to the probation transformation initiative.

A complete copy can be downloaded here.

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