Incentives Inspire Positive Behavior Change in Youth on Probation

Posted March 30, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
An example of how to develop opportunity-based incentives with young people

Offer­ing incen­tives beats tra­di­tion­al super­vi­sion in encour­ag­ing pos­i­tive behav­ior change among youth on pro­ba­tion, accord­ing to a new study fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The eval­u­a­tion — con­duct­ed by the Cen­ter for the Study and Advance­ment of Jus­tice Effec­tive­ness and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton Depart­ment of Psy­chi­a­try and Behav­ioral Sci­ences — focused on Oppor­tu­ni­ty-Based Pro­ba­tion, a pro­gram of the Pierce Coun­ty, Wash­ing­ton, Juve­nile Court.

How oppor­tu­ni­ty-based pro­ba­tion works

Oppor­tu­ni­ty-based pro­ba­tion aims to help youth build skills, devel­op respon­si­bil­i­ty and avoid being arrest­ed again.

Pro­ba­tion staff, young peo­ple and their care­givers work togeth­er to devel­op a case plan and define week­ly goals. Pos­i­tive behav­iors and met mile­stones earn par­tic­i­pat­ing youth points, which they can redeem for rewards (such as movie the­ater tick­ets) or enrich­ment activ­i­ties in the com­mu­ni­ty (i.e. a job shad­ow­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty). When youth reach cer­tain bench­marks, they can have few­er super­vi­sion meet­ings and — ulti­mate­ly — earn ear­ly release from probation.

Pro­ba­tion coun­selors and par­ents feel real­ly good about this mod­el,” says Pierce Coun­ty Juve­nile Court Pro­ba­tion Man­ag­er Kevin Williams. It’s the right spirit…and young peo­ple real­ly like that they can earn their way off probation.

If youth don’t reach their week­ly goals or if they vio­late the terms of their pro­ba­tion agree­ment, staff use a grid of options to respond appro­pri­ate­ly, includ­ing tem­porar­i­ly sus­pend­ing a young person’s abil­i­ty to redeem points.

Results by the numbers

The evaluation’s first phase — which spanned an 18-month peri­od from 2017 to 2018 — com­pared out­comes for youth involved in Oppor­tu­ni­ty-Based Pro­ba­tion ver­sus tra­di­tion­al super­vi­sion. Par­tic­i­pants in the incen­tive-based approach logged 60% few­er new refer­rals to court and 67% few­er pro­ba­tion vio­la­tions com­pared to their tra­di­tion­al­ly sup­port­ed peers.

Dur­ing the study, 53% of all Oppor­tu­ni­ty-Based Pro­ba­tion par­tic­i­pants were young peo­ple of col­or — an indi­ca­tion that incen­tive-based approach­es may be a promis­ing option for help­ing youth of col­or suc­ceed on probation.

Why oppor­tu­ni­ty-based pro­ba­tion works

Pierce County’s Oppor­tu­ni­ty-Based Pro­ba­tion pro­gram is root­ed in research that indi­cates young peo­ple respond bet­ter to rewards than they do to threats of pun­ish­ment. The program’s col­lab­o­ra­tive case-plan­ning approach val­ues youth voic­es and fam­i­ly con­nec­tions, and its use of short-term, man­age­able goals rec­og­nizes that youth are still devel­op­ing a capac­i­ty for longer-term for­ward thinking.

The evaluation’s next phase reviews feed­back from youths and fam­i­lies to deter­mine if the pro­gram has helped strength­en these impor­tant connections.

Read Casey’s report on Trans­form­ing Juve­nile Probation

Learn about Pierce Coun­ty’s efforts to build com­mu­ni­ty partnerships

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