A Call to Action: Juvenile Probation and Racial Justice

Posted July 8, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Steve Bishop, The Annie E. Casey Foundation

Steve Bish­op, a senior asso­ciate at the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, is lead­ing efforts to trans­form juve­nile pro­ba­tion. He recent­ly answered ques­tions about racial injus­tice and juve­nile probation.

Q: Is there sys­temic racism in the jus­tice system?

The jus­tice sys­tem must face head-on the real­i­ty that it is plagued by sys­temic racism. I believe that an hon­est account­ing of probation’s role in per­pet­u­at­ing racial dis­par­i­ties is nec­es­sary to advance any long-term efforts at reform. For instance, youth of col­or are far more like­ly than their white peers to be con­fined for vio­lat­ing pro­ba­tion rules. In 2017, youth of col­or rep­re­sent­ed 64% of young peo­ple held in res­i­den­tial cus­tody for tech­ni­cal vio­la­tions — far high­er than their share of the nation’s total youth pop­u­la­tion (46%) or their share of all juve­nile pro­ba­tion dis­po­si­tions nation­wide (55%).

Q: How could juve­nile pro­ba­tion lead­ers help address sys­temic racism?

As with polic­ing, lead­ers and advo­cates already know many of the long-term solu­tions for address­ing racial inequities in juve­nile jus­tice and in pro­ba­tion specif­i­cal­ly. Indeed, the Casey Foundation’s 2018 report, Trans­form­ing Juve­nile Jus­tice: A Vision for Get­ting it Right, includ­ed a 15-item check­list of con­crete steps that juve­nile pro­ba­tion agen­cies can take to pro­mote racial equi­ty and inclu­sion. Many more impor­tant ideas are sure to emerge through tough con­ver­sa­tions in the weeks and months ahead with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, peo­ple who have expe­ri­enced pro­ba­tion and young peo­ple in the jus­tice sys­tem today.

The chal­lenge, though, isn’t to fig­ure out what pol­i­cy and prac­tice reforms to enact, but rather to mobi­lize the will to pur­sue a nec­es­sary and over­due trans­for­ma­tion of the sys­tem. The chal­lenge is to shift the cul­ture of pro­ba­tion agen­cies to active­ly com­bat racism — to be antiracist, mul­ti­cul­tur­al and inclusive.

His­to­ry shows that these kinds of changes are dif­fi­cult. That’s why it’s so impor­tant for pro­ba­tion lead­ers to take con­crete steps imme­di­ate­ly. Pro­ba­tion chiefs must show their staff — as well as the youth, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties with whom pro­ba­tion offi­cers work — that they have the will to trans­form them­selves and their pro­fes­sion. That’s best demon­strat­ed through actions that show humil­i­ty, com­pas­sion and com­mit­ment to race equity.

Q: What con­crete steps could juve­nile pro­ba­tion lead­ers and staff take right now as Amer­i­ca is grap­pling with inequity and sys­temic bias?

I see four imme­di­ate priorities:

  • Make clear to staff that pro­ba­tion means busi­ness when it comes to com­bat­ting all forms of racial bias and to cul­ti­vat­ing an orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture where youth, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties served by pro­ba­tion agen­cies feel val­ued and respect­ed at all times. Pro­ba­tion lead­ers should acknowl­edge that pro­ba­tion is an exten­sion of the sys­tem of con­trol that peo­ple are protest­ing against, and they should take imme­di­ate action to inten­si­fy the focus on racial and eth­nic equi­ty with­in their depart­ments, begin­ning with the check­list. Also, pro­ba­tion lead­ers should make clear through words and actions that dis­re­spect­ful treat­ment of youth, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties will not be tolerated.
  • Be active and non-judg­men­tal lis­ten­ers in deal­ings with young peo­ple and their fam­i­lies. Acknowl­edge the deep and legit­i­mate anger peo­ple are feel­ing over the deaths of Black Amer­i­cans at the hands of the police and the per­va­sive racial inequities in the jus­tice sys­tem. Pro­ba­tion agen­cies should con­sid­er bring­ing in com­mu­ni­ty-based part­ners to facil­i­tate groups and/​or help indi­vid­ual youth grap­ple with ques­tions about race, iden­ti­ty and one’s place in the world. As part of ado­les­cent devel­op­ment, young peo­ple process who they are, who they want to become and how they could con­tribute to the greater good.
  • Pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple to con­nect with com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers and get involved in efforts to pro­mote new approach­es to com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty. Per­haps more than any­thing else, the protest move­ment emerg­ing from George Floyd’s death has shown that America’s com­mu­ni­ties of col­or are home to an abun­dance of car­ing, con­cerned and jus­tice-seek­ing adults who are ready and eager to con­tribute. In the days ahead, pro­ba­tion agen­cies should do every­thing they can to iden­ti­fy and reach out to these lead­ers and forge con­nec­tions that give young peo­ple on pro­ba­tion a chance to work with and learn from them.
  • For those young peo­ple who wish to par­tic­i­pate in protests, pro­ba­tion should seek to con­nect youth with respon­si­ble orga­niz­ers who are plan­ning and orches­trat­ing peace­ful protests, if pos­si­ble. They also can min­i­mize legal con­se­quences for youth by refus­ing to sanc­tion those whose par­tic­i­pa­tion in protests vio­late their terms of pro­ba­tion and by inter­ven­ing on young people’s behalf if they are arrest­ed while par­tic­i­pat­ing in a protest.

Ulti­mate­ly, these moves are mean­ing­ful only if they are fol­lowed by deep­er and more sys­temic action. After all, these are only first steps.

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