Frequently Asked Questions About Juvenile Probation

Posted November 2, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Young man with hoodie and backpack walk out door

Youth pro­ba­tion is the most com­mon out­come in cas­es referred to juve­nile delin­quen­cy courts in the Unit­ed States year after year. At its best, pro­ba­tion offers court-involved juve­niles the chance to remain in their com­mu­ni­ty and be con­nect­ed to con­struc­tive and ther­a­peu­tic activ­i­ties rather than being incar­cer­at­ed. How­ev­er, pro­ba­tion can also become a gate­way to unnec­es­sary con­fine­ment for youth who frus­trate author­i­ties with non­com­pli­ant behav­ior, but pose min­i­mal risk to pub­lic safe­ty. This over­re­liance on con­fine­ment dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affects youth of col­or and exac­er­bates the already severe racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties plagu­ing juve­nile justice.

Since 2018, many experts in the juve­nile jus­tice field have joined the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion in call­ing for fun­da­men­tal changes in juve­nile pro­ba­tion poli­cies and prac­tices to bet­ter align pro­ba­tion with avail­able research on ado­les­cence and with evi­dence about what works to steer young peo­ple to suc­cess.

Learn about Casey’s com­mit­ment to trans­form­ing juve­nile probation

What is Juve­nile Probation?

Juve­nile pro­ba­tion — also known as youth pro­ba­tion — is a court-imposed inter­ven­tion dur­ing which young peo­ple remain at home under the super­vi­sion of a juve­nile pro­ba­tion offi­cer. While on pro­ba­tion, young peo­ple are typ­i­cal­ly required to adhere to rules and con­di­tions includ­ed in their pro­ba­tion orders, such as cur­fews, ran­dom search­es and pro­hi­bi­tions on who they may asso­ciate with, and to check in reg­u­lar­ly with their pro­ba­tion offi­cers, par­tic­i­pate in manda­to­ry meet­ings, per­form com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice or pay restitution.

Key Sta­tis­tics About Juve­nile Probation

How many young peo­ple are placed on juve­nile pro­ba­tion each year?

In 2019, rough­ly 265,000 youth were placed on pro­ba­tion by juve­nile courts nation­wide. Pro­ba­tion is the most com­mon dis­po­si­tion in youth justice.

Why are youth placed on juve­nile probation?

Most youth on pro­ba­tion have minor offend­ing his­to­ries. More than half of youth added to pro­ba­tion case­loads in 2019 were placed there infor­mal­ly, with­out being found delin­quent by a juve­nile court, or were adju­di­cat­ed for a sta­tus offense, an offense that would not be ille­gal if com­mit­ted by an adult, such as tru­an­cy, under­age drink­ing or run­ning away from home.

Oth­er com­mon offense types for youth on pro­ba­tion include dis­or­der­ly con­duct, van­dal­ism and tres­pass­ing. Just 9% of juve­niles placed on pro­ba­tion in 2019 were charged with seri­ous vio­lent crimes, and 21% were charged with seri­ous prop­er­ty crimes, such as bur­glary or car theft.

How old are youth when they are placed on probation?

Most youth (80%) are ages 14, 15, 16 or 17 when they are placed on juve­nile pro­ba­tion. Some states place chil­dren as young as 10 years old on probation.

Does juve­nile pro­ba­tion end when a youth turns 18?

A per­son can be on juve­nile pro­ba­tion over age 18 for offens­es com­mit­ted before they turned 18. In most states, once placed on pro­ba­tion, youth can remain on pro­ba­tion until age 21.

What is the racial make­up of youth on probation?

Youth of col­or — pri­mar­i­ly Black and Amer­i­can Indi­an youth — are over­rep­re­sent­ed on pro­ba­tion case­loads, just as they are in all oth­er phas­es of the juve­nile court process. In 2019, Black youth were placed on pro­ba­tion at three times the rate as white youth accord­ing to fed­er­al data. The rate for Amer­i­can Indi­an youth exceed­ed that of their white peers by two and half times. The rate for Lati­no youth was also high­er than for white youth, but incon­sis­tent data cat­e­gories and report­ing prac­tices among juve­nile jus­tice agen­cies’ demo­graph­ic data about Lati­no youth make that num­ber less exact. Of youth held in res­i­den­tial cus­tody in 2019 for tech­ni­cal vio­la­tions of pro­ba­tion — break­ing pro­ba­tion rules can be a gate­way to deep­er, more puni­tive sys­tem involve­ment — two-thirds were youth of col­or.

How many peo­ple work in youth probation?

Juve­nile pro­ba­tion agen­cies nation­wide employ 15,000 to 20,000 pro­fes­sion­als. The lion’s share work as pro­ba­tion offi­cers, some­times referred to as pro­ba­tion coun­selors, who direct­ly super­vise the cas­es of youth placed for­mal­ly or infor­mal­ly on pro­ba­tion caseloads.

What qual­i­fi­ca­tions do juve­nile pro­ba­tion offi­cers need?

In most states, pro­ba­tion offi­cers must have a bachelor’s degree in crim­i­nal jus­tice, psy­chol­o­gy, social work, coun­sel­ing, edu­ca­tion or a relat­ed field. The require­ments for pro­ba­tion per­son­nel are set at the state level.

Juve­nile Pro­ba­tion in Practice

What are terms and con­di­tions of juve­nile probation?

In most juris­dic­tions, pro­ba­tion orders include a list of as many as 30 con­di­tions, includ­ing many that are imposed on all youth regard­less of their indi­vid­ual cir­cum­stances. These may include cur­fews; resti­tu­tion and/​or com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice; manda­to­ry par­tic­i­pa­tion in meet­ings and treat­ment activ­i­ties; blan­ket require­ments to attend school and com­plete school assign­ments, obey par­ents and sub­mit to ran­dom search­es; wear an elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing device; and pro­hi­bi­tions against asso­ci­at­ing with oth­ers who are on pro­ba­tion or have crim­i­nal or delin­quen­cy records. Youth are typ­i­cal­ly required to meet or check in with their pro­ba­tion offi­cer on a reg­u­lar basis.

Are stan­dard pro­ba­tion con­di­tions sup­port­ed by evidence?

No. The Nation­al Coun­cil of Juve­nile and Fam­i­ly Court Judges not­ed the use of stan­dard con­di­tions is root­ed in a sur­veil­lance-com­pli­ance mod­el of pro­ba­tion that… is con­tra­dict­ed by emerg­ing research on ado­les­cent devel­op­ment, and it has not proven effec­tive in lim­it­ing rear­rest rates or pro­mot­ing pos­i­tive behav­ior change.”

What hap­pens when young peo­ple vio­late the terms of their pro­ba­tion orders?

The con­se­quences for non-com­pli­ance with juve­nile pro­ba­tion rules can be severe. Youth placed for­mal­ly on pro­ba­tion after being adju­di­cat­ed delin­quent by a judge may be found in vio­la­tion of pro­ba­tion, fac­ing pun­ish­ments up to and includ­ing incar­cer­a­tion. Indeed, the lat­est nation­al data show that 14% of all youth con­fined in res­i­den­tial cus­tody by delin­quen­cy courts were charged with vio­lat­ing the tech­ni­cal terms of their pro­ba­tion, not break­ing the law.

For youth placed on infor­mal pro­ba­tion after being divert­ed from court, or as part of a con­sent decree or deferred pros­e­cu­tion agree­ment, fail­ing to fol­low pro­ba­tion rules can result in a return to court and for­mal adjudication.

What role do fam­i­lies play in juve­nile probation?

Research shows that par­ents and oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers and car­ing adults remain the most impor­tant influ­ences in ado­les­cents’ lives. The ties between young peo­ple and their fam­i­ly mem­bers and oth­er sup­port­ive adults, even when dam­aged or strained, are essen­tial for healthy devel­op­ment. When pro­ba­tion offi­cers pos­i­tive­ly engage with par­ents and oth­er sup­port­ive adults in a young person’s life to sup­port the youth, the youth is more like­ly to suc­ceed.

Are fines and fees asso­ci­at­ed with juve­nile probation?

Fam­i­ly mem­bers [or young peo­ple them­selves] are often required to pay fines and fees relat­ed to their children’s pro­ba­tion cas­es, despite research show­ing that these finan­cial oblig­a­tions are asso­ci­at­ed with worse out­comes for young peo­ple and harm youth and fam­i­lies of col­or dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly. In 2017, a nation­al study found that pro­ba­tion agen­cies in 29 states imposed super­vi­sion fees” or charged fam­i­lies for oth­er costs (court fees, diver­sion fees, evaluation/​testing, and more), though a num­ber of states have begun pro­hibit­ing these fees in recent years.

How much time does a young per­son spend on juve­nile probation?

The aver­age dura­tion of pro­ba­tion varies wide­ly from juris­dic­tion to juris­dic­tion, from less than one year to over two years. This pro­ba­tion­ary peri­od is longer than experts recommend.

Does evi­dence show that juve­nile pro­ba­tion works?

Research indi­cates that sur­veil­lance-ori­ent­ed pro­ba­tion is not an effec­tive strat­e­gy for revers­ing delin­quent behav­ior, with insignif­i­cant effects on reof­fend­ing and espe­cial­ly poor results with youth at low risk of rearrest.

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