Pierce County: Trailblazer for Probation Transformation

Posted May 28, 2018
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Tacoma, Washington, which is a leader in improving juvenile probation.

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.”

Learn about pro­ba­tion trans­for­ma­tion in Lucas Coun­ty, Ohio

Read Trans­form­ing Juve­nile Pro­ba­tion: A Vision for Get­ting It Right

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