How a ‘Time-Limited’ Approach Can Transform Juvenile Probation

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For juveniles entangled with the criminal justice system, the time spent on probation can greatly impact their success in life later on, or their likelihood to recidivate.

Because of this, new research has inspired experts from the Urban Institute to outline a new transformative “time-limited” approach to probation, where officers act as “resource bridges” to help youth reconnect to their community and find long-term support services.

The authors Samantha Harvell, Leah Sakala, and Andreea Matei, write that the justice system must rethink juvenile probation terms, as many agencies aren’t operating as “resource bridges focused on connecting youth with community-based resources to support them long term.”

By restructuring existing probation terms into a system that promotes a community-focused approach to juvenile probation, the Urban Institute researchers say that recidivism can be reduced, and youth will grow up outside of the carceral system.

First, the researchers write that lawmakers and advocates have to focus less on “fixing” youth who are entangled in the criminal system, and focus more on “wrapping them and their caregivers with needed, culturally relevant, and culturally responsive supports in their homes and communities…” in order for real change to be made.

The Urban Institute researchers acknowledge that probation officers play a vital role in a juvenile’s opportunity to reconnect with their community and be a part of effective interventions.

However, they cannot reach success alone, which is why the report outlines a shift in the current framework to one that upholds safety and fosters positive youth outcomes.

“The ultimate goal is to shift to a community-owned safety infrastructure in which all youth

have the support and resources they need to grow into adulthood without being exposed to risk of incarceration or state control,” the researchers detail.

A ‘Time-Limited Bridge’ for Change

The researchers begin by detailing how one of the biggest challenges for youth reform is figuring out how to help a troubled juvenile into becoming someone who is engaged and feels safe. The Urban Institute report outlines that in many serious cases, juveniles are facing incarceration, poverty, racism from others — including adults and police.

However, by creating a safe space outside of the justice system, the authors note that young people are given the opportunity to “learn from their mistakes and practice responsibility.”

The authors cite the Massachusetts-based program called Roca, which works with young adults, police, and other justice systems to address trauma, find hope, and work towards change.

The Roca program utilizes a “time-limited bridge” with milestone goals during probation, which helps kep the youth on track and engaged in the process.

And, the Roca results speak for themselves.

“In Massachusetts, where [Roca] has been engaged longest, fourt out of five young men participating in the program between 2012 and 2019 stopped engaging in violent crime and only one in three recidiviated within three years, significantly fewer than the state average.”

Because of these promising changes and a new outlook on the current probation model for juveniles, the Urban Institute researchers detail a groundbreaking three-phase plan.

Three-Phase Proposed Plan: ‘Principles in Action’

The researchers operationalized a framework that reimagines probation, which they say a vast majority of youth can complete within six months or less. The framework was designed to be “community-centered” and allow for a better transition and closure for the individual.

Phase one is centered around introductions and relationship building between the individual and their probation officer(s) or case team. The researchers note that this first phase of developing relationships, which includes identifying goals, meeting with family and caregivers, and developing a case plan with clear expectations, should take place within the first 15-45 days of beginning of the probation period.

This phase one principal of establishing relationships isn’t novel: Utah currently sets terms for one to three months of juvenile probation to be dedicated to intake, whereas the remaining four to six months are the formal probation period.

Phase two features building connections with long-term community support. The researchers note this phase should be completed 0-60 days after the end of phase one.

This time during probation is also meant to “promote critical thinking and life skills” as well as connect youth with treatment.

In Pierce County, Washington, youth are on probation for as long as necessary for them to connect with services and community support. This way, they are set up with a firm-foundation for success beyond the probation program, the Urban Institute researchers detail.

Lastly, phase three is meant to be completed within 60 days following the completion of phase two, and highlights the transition and closure part of probation for the juvenile.

During this final phase, the Urban Institute researchers suggest periodic check-ins between the youth and probation officers, as well as facilitating incentives, restorative practices, and creating opportunities to shorten the end of the probationary term.

Similarly, the researchers cite how in Kansas, youth can earn up to one week off of their probationary term for every successful month of reporting and progress being shown.

“By definition and design, probation imposes significant requirements on youth and their families/caregivers, and puts them at risk of revocation, placement, and deep entrenchment in the juvenile justice system,” the authors conclude.

“Like all youth, justice-involved youth learn and grow best when they are heard and when their needs—including the need for ongoing support while learning from their mistakes and achieving their goals—are met.”

Samantha Harvell is a principal policy associate for the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Harvell leads juvenile and criminal justice reform research projects with a focus on translating findings to policy and practice.

Leah Sakala is a senior policy associate in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where she co-leads a team focused on criminal and juvenile justice reform.

Andreea Matei is a research analyst in the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. She is interested in reentry, bail reform, and prison conditions and programming.

The full report can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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