Pierce County: Trailblazer for Probation Transformation
Washington’s Pierce County has taken bold strides to revamp its approach to juvenile probation, which is the most common sentence in our nation’s juvenile justice system.
The county, which is home to Tacoma, is featured in a new report, Transforming Juvenile Probation, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The publication describes how jurisdictions can get probation right by leveraging knowledge of adolescent behavior and using interventions that consistently reduce delinquency.
In 2014, Pierce County was one of two Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI™) sites nationwide that received a probation transformation grant from the Casey Foundation. Since then, county leaders and probation staff have worked to cultivate new and constructive ties with local families and community organizations. The county has also created ambitious programs tailored to youth with serious delinquency histories and upgraded diversion and light-touch probation options for youth assessed as having a lower risk for rearrest.
These efforts have prompted a profound and fundamental shift in the county’s approach to probation. “From a cultural standpoint, we’re trying our best to keep kids out of institutions,” says Kevin Williams, assistant administrator for probation at Pierce County Juvenile Court. “We have total buy-in from our staff that if we can keep youth in our community, they’re more likely to make a successful transition to adulthood.”
Perhaps the county’s most ambitious new program, Opportunity-Based Probation, was designed in partnership with Sarah Walker, a research associate professor at the University of Washington. The program is rooted in research indicating that youth respond far better to rewards and incentives for positive behavior than to the threat of punishment for misbehavior. Consequently, Opportunity-Based Probation aims to incentivize positive behavior change and personal growth rather than deter misbehavior.
In practice, the program works like this: Youth who satisfy the weekly goals identified in their case plans receive points that can be redeemed for opportunities to participate in enrichment activities or for prizes (such as bus passes, gift cards or passes to popular venues). When youth break probation rules or fail to complete goals, they are rarely sanctioned. Instead, they may temporarily lose their ability to earn and redeem points or other privileges, and they may need to participate in a problem-solving conversation. Only youth with problematic conduct that endangers public safety end up returning to court through the program.
Pierce County also launched a second program, called Pathways to Success. This program targets African-American boys ages 15 and under — a demographic that runs the highest risk of failing in probation and ending up in custody, according to county data. A care coordinator and a probation counselor co-lead the program, which employs a team-oriented wraparound approach. While Pathways to Success provides therapeutic treatment for many participants, all youth in the program take part in positive youth development opportunities where they can explore their interests and build practical skills.
Beyond these new programs, Pierce County has changed its approach to probation in other significant ways, including:
- Creating Community Partnerships for Positive Youth Development: The probation department funds local organizations to offer multi-week programs in boat building, skateboarding, yoga and bicycle repair, as well as programs at the local YMCA. The county also is funding a local organization to provide mentors to court-involved youth.
- Intensifying the Focus on Family: As part of its transformation, Pierce County has surveyed youth and parents, created a 12-member family council to advise the probation department, and funded parent advocates to support the families of court-involved youth. The county is also employing a youth and family team approach to help craft young people’s case plans and track their progress over time.
- Improving Diversion: Pierce County has partnered with a community organization to offer a 12-hour evidence-based seminar for youth who are assessed as lower risk and for the parents of these youth. In addition, the county has developed a diversion program for youth involved in domestic disputes and it has reduced the number of youth referred back to the prosecutor for failing to complete diversion agreements.
“Probation has become much more than just supervision,” says juvenile court administrator TJ Bohl. “We are evolving into a more Positive Youth Justice model that promotes behavior change, skill acquisition and healthy relationships.”