Juvenile probation, originally designed to keep young people out of jail, has become a “significant driver” of youth incarceration across the U.S., according to a former senior probation official.
“There are far more young people in the justice system under the supervision of probation departments than there are in any other aspect of the system,” says David Muhammad, a former deputy probation commissioner in New York City who is now executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform.
“Probation is a significant driver of incarceration.”
Arrests of young people have actually dropped over the past decade and a half —from two million a year in the early 2000s to a little over 700,00 annually—and a growing number of states have closed juvenile detention facilities, partly as a result of the push for reforms in youth justice over the past decade.
But reformers have now pivoted to the plight of young people placed on probation by juvenile courts, where they are more likely to be trapped in a cycle that makes it virtually impossible to escape further involvement in the justice system.
“Each year, on average, about two-thirds of all young people who are adjudicated in juvenile courts go on probation,” says Stephen Bishop, a senior associate in the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and a member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency.
“Educators and other folks in human services use the juvenile justice system as a default for any other problems that they haven’t been successful solving.”
Both men, speaking at a webinar last week on the new challenges of youth justice reform, said young people of color have been disproportionately given probationary sentences instead of less punitive alternative options such as community services.
For most of those young people, “probation” as a diversion from jail is a misnomer, since they are likely to be detained before a judge decides on the disposition of their case. According to one statistic cited at the webinar, 48 percent of young white offenders are diverted to community service, compared to 37 percent of youths of color.
“There are about 60 percent fewer youth incarcerated today than there were 10 or 15 years ago, which is a victory—and we’ll take the victory,” said Muhammad.
“But the disproportionality is worse. As we reduce the size of the system, people of color, especially black children, make up a higher percentage of those young people who are incarcerated.”
Moreover, in an echo of the adult justice system, once a young person is placed on probation, he or she is more likely to be sent into detention because of a “technical violation” of the probationary terms, rather than for committing a new offense.
The program was the second in a series of Fall-Winter webinars for journalists examining the “Next Frontier” in youth justice reforms. The series is organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, publisher of The Crime Report, with support from the Tow Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Probation Officers in Bulletproof Vests
According to the speakers, the punitive nature of the “traditional” juvenile probation system, which employs many of the same techniques used to supervise adult probationers, creates resentment, alienation and fear among young people.
“Most people might think of a juvenile probation officer as a mentor or a counselor, but the reality is they look like adult probation officers; they look like cops,” said Bishop.
“Many of them wear bulletproof vests and carry firearms, and these are people who are visiting kids at home, going into the schools, going into various community organizations where these young people may be engaged in activities.
“I think we’ve come to appreciate the negative impact this has in the adult probation system, but we also need to understand the harms it creates for juveniles.”
Both speakers said there were alternative models underway in several cities that dispensed entirely with juvenile probation and the courts as a tool for addressing adolescent misbehavior.
Muhammad said a program launched eight months ago in Oakland, Ca., diverts young people arrested for a felony offense to a community-based diversion program, operated by group of community members, business owners, formerly incarcerated individuals and crime victims.
Describing the group as a “kind of village council,” he said it works with the young person to develop a plan for rehabilitation or restorative justice.
“The [young people] never touch probation, they never touch juvenile detention, they never touch the court system,” Muhammad said, noting that about 30 young people had been through the program, and none of them had been rearrested so far.
“It’s a pretty extraordinary program,” he said. “I’d like to be able to say that three years from now we’ll have 300 youth.”
Bishop and Muhammad made clear that the specifics of the reforms were less important than the need to rethink how many of these young people were perceived by authorities.
Contrary to media images, most of the young people who run afoul of the justice system have committed nonviolent offenses. Young people under 18 make up only six percent of arrests in big cities related to shootings, said Muhammad.
Bishop said that was a key reason for rethinking the punitive, fear-based nature of the current juvenile justice system, which defaults to perceiving justice-involved young people—especially young people of color—as public safety risks who need to be confined or otherwise closely supervised.
“The predominant methods and techniques for working with young people under most probation departments are based on risk reduction,” he said. “We’ve failed to think of it in terms of youth development.”
Bishop cited a program in Philadelphia aimed at reducing the number of young people sent into the juvenile justice system by school security officers, one of the principal feeders of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Under the program, which banned intervention by police in schools except for a serous, violent offense and instead directed young people who posed disciplinary problems to the county Department of Human Services for a family assessment, school-based arrests dropped 60 percent over three years.
“They do an assessment with the young person and family and help point them towards the types of support services that they might need,” Bishop said.
While such community-based services may represent new costs, the failures of juvenile probation should encourage local authorities to rethink their priorities, Muhammad said.
“The evidence we have on (juvenile) probation is that it’s not effective,” he added. “Yet it continues to get an extraordinary amount of money from taxpayers.”
A further impetus for rethinking traditional juvenile probation might come from using the money saved from closing so many youth facilities, said Samantha Harvell, author of a landmark Urban Institute study of financing justice reforms.
“Almost every state has closed at least a small facility,” Harvell told the webinar. “I think it’s absolutely a real opportunity [to] capture those savings for reinvestment-—we’re at a pivot point.
“The key is making sure that that the savings aren’t used to shore up state budget gaps.”
Harvell said traditional cost-benefit models for assessing justice programs were especially unsuited for youth justice,
“Sometimes we underestimate the value of getting a kid back on track,” she said. “we don’t factor in the cost of them continuing in the criminal justice system.
“There are some really compelling arguments to be made from kind of a cost-benefit perspective of investing in kids and investing in communities.”
CORRECTION: Due to a mistake in transcription, an earlier version of this story misquoted David Muhammad on the percentage decline in incarcerated youth over the past decade and a half. The correct percentage is 60 percent, not 16 percent.
Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report.