A Bold Vision for Getting Juvenile Probation Right

Posted May 7, 2018, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The Casey Foundation is sharing a bold vision for reforming juvenile probation in the United States.

A new report from the Casey Foundation lays out a vision of sweeping changes and new and expanded priorities for juvenile probation. Based on more than 25 years of experience with JDAI™ and five years of studying probation with practitioners, youth, families, researchers and pilot sites, Transforming Juvenile Probation: A Vision for Getting It Right describes how and why systems must reimagine the most common disposition in juvenile justice to get better outcomes for young people.

Probation plays a pivotal role in the juvenile justice system, with nearly 400,000 receiving it in some form each year. Probation should offer court-involved youth who would otherwise be confined the chance to remain in the community productively. Evidence shows, however, that juvenile probation as its structured now doesn’t work.

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Research demonstrates that surveillance-oriented probation — a judge imposing a list of rules that the young person must follow and a probation officer keeping tabs on the youth to monitor compliance — is not an effective strategy for reversing delinquent behavior, especially for youth at low risk of rearrest.

Worse, probation often pulls youth who pose minimal risk to public safety deeper into the system. In many jurisdictions, more youth are committed to residential facilities for technical probation violations, such as breaking curfew, than for violent felonies or any other type of lawbreaking behavior. This unnecessary confinement disproportionately affects youth of color and exacerbates the already severe racial and ethnic disparities plaguing juvenile justice.

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But, the report shows, it doesn’t have to be this way. New knowledge about adolescent behavior and brain development and evidence about intervention strategies that do reduce delinquency can equip the field to get probation right.

The Foundation’s vision for transforming probation calls for:

  • dramatically reducing the size of the probation population and probation officer caseloads by diverting far more youth so they can mature without being pulled into the justice system;
  • making probation a focused intervention that promotes personal growth, positive behavioral change and long-term success for the much smaller population of youth who will remain on supervision caseloads and pose significant risks for serious offending;
  • trying new interventions and letting go of outdated, ineffective ones;
  • moving from compliance to support, sanctions to incentives and standard court conditions to individualized expectations and goals;
  • embracing families and community organizations as partners; and
  • setting clear and meaningful outcome goals for probation itself — including improving racial and ethnic equity — and holding probation and its partner agencies accountable for achieving them.

“Getting probation right means being deliberate about race and drawing on families and communities to help youth build the skills they need to mature,” says Stephen Bishop, a senior associate with the Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. “Probation is too often focused on trying to ‘fix’ youth so they will not break the law again. What it should be is a lever to draw on the resources that will help youth achieve long-term success. That’s how we make communities safe.”

The report provides examples of jurisdictions from Los Angeles to Lucas County, Ohio, that are moving toward expanded diversion and more focused probation to improve outcomes for young people in trouble with the law.

Related resources:

Read the executive summary of Transforming Juvenile Probation: A Vision for Getting It Right

Read about probation transformation in Lucas County, Ohio

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