Pierce County Youth Probation: Few Youth Need Out-of-Home Placement

Posted May 12, 2022, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Young people are skateboarding

Photo courtesy of Pierce County Juvenile Court

Wash­ing­ton State’s Pierce Coun­ty — home to Taco­ma — demon­strates that most youth who get in trou­ble with the law can get back on track with­out incar­cer­a­tion. Deploy­ing strate­gies root­ed in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s vision for trans­form­ing juve­nile pro­ba­tion, the coun­ty offers an exam­ple of what is pos­si­ble when youth jus­tice sys­tems build strong com­mu­ni­ty part­ner­ships and pur­sue changes designed to max­i­mize con­nec­tions and oppor­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple to become suc­cess­ful adults.

Com­pared to the nation­al aver­age, Pierce Coun­ty sends a dra­mat­i­cal­ly small­er per­cent­age of its young peo­ple to court-ordered cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ties and oth­er res­i­den­tial insti­tu­tions, rely­ing instead on pro­ba­tion and com­mu­ni­ty part­ner­ships to sup­port young peo­ple with seri­ous and com­plex cas­es. The county’s poli­cies and prac­tices rec­og­nize that young peo­ple are more like­ly to thrive in their own com­mu­ni­ties with sta­ble con­nec­tions to pos­i­tive adults and activ­i­ties than in insti­tu­tion­al con­fine­ment. In 2019, the last year of avail­able nation­al data, the county’s reliance on con­fine­ment was less than one-third of the nation­al rate.

In Pierce Coun­ty, juve­nile pro­ba­tion coun­selors (called offi­cers in most juris­dic­tions) work with youth with seri­ous offens­es and sig­nif­i­cant needs who — if not for the sup­port and struc­ture of pro­ba­tion — would be insti­tu­tion­al­ized. How do coun­selors have time for the inten­sive men­tor­ship, guid­ance and rela­tion­ship build­ing this group of young peo­ple requires? The coun­ty fol­lows a frame­work to focus its pro­ba­tion resources only on the young peo­ple who need them to suc­ceed in a com­mu­ni­ty set­ting and avoid the harms of incarceration.

A Frame­work That Focus­es Juve­nile Pro­ba­tion Resources

The coun­ty uses two com­ple­men­tary strate­gies to focus pro­ba­tion resources.

First, Pierce Coun­ty tries to max­i­mize the num­ber of young peo­ple divert­ed from for­mal pro­cess­ing to com­mu­ni­ty-based respons­es, based on spec­i­fied min­i­mum require­ments that a case must meet before a youth is put on pro­ba­tion. This frees up pro­ba­tion resources and rec­og­nizes the abil­i­ties of local orga­ni­za­tions and peo­ple to sup­port their youth. The youth jus­tice sys­tem has been a catch-all for deal­ing with behav­iors that are nor­mal parts of ado­les­cent devel­op­ment,” says Kevin Williams, pro­ba­tion man­ag­er for Pierce Coun­ty Juve­nile Court. Young peo­ple need pos­i­tive oppor­tu­ni­ties and con­nec­tions to thrive, not crim­i­nal records.”

Sec­ond, pro­ba­tion offi­cers reserve pro­ba­tion rec­om­men­da­tions for youth with sig­nif­i­cant needs and seri­ous offens­es, many of whom would have oth­er­wise been incarcerated.

The fol­low­ing image illus­trates the frame­work. It depicts rais­ing the floor that sep­a­rates divert­ed youth from those on pro­ba­tion and rais­ing the ceil­ing that sep­a­rates youth on pro­ba­tion from those in cus­tody. The strate­gies work in tan­dem. Unless juris­dic­tions raise the floor, their pro­ba­tion case­loads will be too large for offi­cers to build mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships with young peo­ple with sig­nif­i­cant needs and seri­ous offens­es. With small­er case­loads and the right approach, pro­ba­tion can raise the ceil­ing, which means rely­ing on pro­ba­tion staff to work with youth who would oth­er­wise be insti­tu­tion­al­ized. A juris­dic­tion needs to enact both strate­gies to real­ize the poten­tial for diver­sion and pro­ba­tion to fos­ter com­mu­ni­ty con­nec­tions and oppor­tu­ni­ties, sup­port long-term behav­ior change and avoid the cost and dan­ger of exces­sive­ly puni­tive responses.

Pierce Coun­ty has under­tak­en these changes with com­pre­hen­sive and col­lab­o­ra­tive plan­ning involv­ing com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions, young peo­ple, fam­i­lies, attor­neys, judges and a host of oth­er partners.

Keep­ing Young Peo­ple Con­nect­ed to Com­mu­ni­ty, Not Courts

The Pierce Coun­ty Juve­nile Court infor­mal­ly han­dled 73% of the case refer­rals it received in 2021 through a diver­sion­ary process, lean­ing on com­mu­ni­ty respons­es rather than legal sanc­tions and court over­sight to help young peo­ple get back on track. In the par­lance of the frame­work, Pierce Coun­ty was able to raise the floor of its pro­ba­tion pop­u­la­tion by divert­ing 73% of its case refer­rals. This sta­tis­tic is sig­nif­i­cant because a grow­ing body of research over the last 25 years indi­cates that young peo­ple whose cas­es are han­dled infor­mal­ly stay in school longer and are less like­ly to be arrest­ed than their peers who are for­mal­ly prosecuted.

Inspired by that research, Pierce Coun­ty ana­lyzed its own data in 2018 and found that three-quar­ters of the more than 5,000 young peo­ple whose cas­es were divert­ed between 2012 and 2016 had no arrests for new offens­es in the two years after their diver­sion. As the coun­ty expand­ed its diver­sion efforts and brought in com­mu­ni­ty part­ners to help design and deliv­er ser­vices and oppor­tu­ni­ties, those results got even stronger. As of Decem­ber 2020, more than 80% of divert­ed youth had no new arrests two years after being divert­ed; 93% had no felony arrests.

Com­pared to the court sys­tem, diver­sion offers young peo­ple more imme­di­ate and con­struc­tive respons­es to their actions. For exam­ple, young peo­ple charged with domes­tic vio­lence, such as a phys­i­cal alter­ca­tion with a par­ent or van­dal­ism of fam­i­ly prop­er­ty, can be direct­ed to a non­prof­it part­ner that pro­vides respite care and ser­vices for fam­i­lies in cri­sis, mod­eled after an approach used in King Coun­ty, Wash­ing­ton. This is an ear­ly and swift inter­ven­tion — typ­i­cal­ly with­in 24 to 48 hours of arrest — in con­trast to for­mal pro­cess­ing, which often cre­ates weeks-long delays in ser­vices and unnec­es­sary involve­ment in the jus­tice system.

Exam­in­ing diver­sion data can pro­mote more equi­table treat­ment of young peo­ple of col­or in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem as well. In 2019, an inter­nal analy­sis found that Black youth in Pierce Coun­ty were divert­ed from juve­nile court far less fre­quent­ly than their white peers, which is true across the nation. Williams and his team act­ed on the data to forge and strength­en part­ner­ships with neigh­bor­hood-based orga­ni­za­tions in Black com­mu­ni­ties. These local groups and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton designed diver­sion oppor­tu­ni­ties specif­i­cal­ly for Black youth that offered them con­nec­tions to pos­i­tive adults and activ­i­ties close to home.

Expand­ing diver­sion is only part of the work required to focus valu­able and lim­it­ed pro­ba­tion resources on the right youth,” says Danielle Lipow, a senior asso­ciate in the Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. While expand­ing diver­sion essen­tial­ly rais­es the floor for who gets pro­ba­tion, it is equal­ly impor­tant to raise the ceil­ing on the pro­ba­tion pop­u­la­tion, which can only hap­pen when sys­tems begin to trust pro­ba­tion with young peo­ple who are cur­rent­ly being removed from their homes and families.”

Trust­ing Pro­ba­tion Offi­cers to Work With Youth Who Would Oth­er­wise Be Institutionalized

Han­dling more seri­ous cas­es through pro­ba­tion rather than place­ment (rais­ing the ceil­ing) has required prac­tice changes with­in the depart­ment. For instance, pro­ba­tion offi­cers rely more on oppor­tu­ni­ty-based pro­ba­tion to help youth build skills, devel­op respon­si­bil­i­ty and avoid being arrest­ed again. This approach is root­ed in research that indi­cates young peo­ple respond bet­ter to rewards for progress toward goals than they do to threats of pun­ish­ment. Pro­ba­tion staff, young peo­ple and their care­givers work togeth­er to devel­op a case plan and define week­ly goals for which youth can earn tan­gi­ble pos­i­tive rein­force­ment. Anoth­er prac­tice change has been for pro­ba­tion offi­cers to team up to help one oth­er to stave off the occu­pa­tion­al stress that could result from work­ing inten­sive­ly to sup­port youth with com­plex lives and needs.

Williams cred­its the front-line juve­nile pro­ba­tion coun­selors and super­vi­sor team for cre­ative think­ing and embrac­ing part­ner­ship with young peo­ple and fam­i­lies. We’ve empow­ered staff to speak freely, and as a result, they feel heard, respect­ed and treat­ed fair­ly so they can show up for the work and thrive,” Williams says.

Pierce Coun­ty pro­ba­tion coun­selors work close­ly with an infra­struc­ture of more than 20 com­mu­ni­ty-based part­ners, an advi­so­ry coun­cil of young people’s fam­i­ly mem­bers and a group of trained men­tors called cred­i­ble mes­sen­gers whose life expe­ri­ences allow them to relate to and reach young peo­ple engaged in risky behav­ior. Unlike many of its peers, the coun­ty rarely sends its youth to state-run cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ties, res­i­den­tial treat­ment cen­ters or group homes.

Pierce County’s data analy­sis showed the need for spe­cif­ic strate­gies to ensure that youth of col­or had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to suc­ceed on pro­ba­tion instead of place­ment. In 2016, for exam­ple, after the pro­ba­tion depart­ment rec­og­nized that Black youth were more like­ly to be con­fined than white youth, admin­is­tra­tors cre­at­ed Path­ways to Suc­cess, a nine- to 12-month spe­cial­ized pro­ba­tion pro­gram for Black youth. Path­ways encour­ages pro­ba­tion coun­selors to work with fam­i­lies to sup­port and guide youth most at risk of con­fine­ment with com­pre­hen­sive sup­port, includ­ing cred­i­ble mes­sen­ger men­tors who help the young peo­ple address the chal­lenges they face. Dur­ing a ses­sion with a men­tor, a young par­tic­i­pant reflect­ed: I appre­ci­ate how you got real­ly into detail about your per­son­al life, and you gave us advice about how to fix our per­son­al lives. I think of this as an actu­al learn­ing experience.”

In 2016, Wash­ing­ton State laws changed to give courts more dis­cre­tion to use pro­ba­tion instead of out-of-home place­ment for youth with seri­ous offens­es such as rob­bery. Pierce Coun­ty seized this oppor­tu­ni­ty and has asked the court to entrust pro­ba­tion with an increas­ing­ly larg­er per­cent­age of youth with more seri­ous cas­es. Of all youth with charges in that cat­e­go­ry, the share who received pro­ba­tion instead of incar­cer­a­tion as a dis­po­si­tion grew from 40% in 2016 to 77% in 2021.

The Take­away

To trans­form youth pro­ba­tion, sys­tems need to rethink the roles of pro­ba­tion staff and the pop­u­la­tion of young peo­ple on pro­ba­tion case­loads. By divert­ing less seri­ous cas­es out­side the sys­tem and con­cen­trat­ing on more seri­ous cas­es, sys­tems can focus lim­it­ed pro­ba­tion resources on help­ing more young peo­ple suc­ceed in the com­mu­ni­ty while keep­ing the com­mu­ni­ty safe.

Pierce Coun­ty has always been a strong sys­tem that strived for the best pos­si­ble results for young peo­ple and their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, guid­ed by research and a res­olute focus on racial equi­ty and com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty,” says Lipow. By lean­ing into part­ner­ships with young peo­ple, fam­i­lies, com­mu­ni­ties and pro­ba­tion staff, Pierce Coun­ty con­tin­ues to prove that jus­tice is best served when the com­mu­ni­ty leads.”

Relat­ed Juve­nile Pro­ba­tion Resources

Pierce Coun­ty: Trail­blaz­er for pro­ba­tion transformation

Incen­tives inspire pos­i­tive behav­ior change in youth on probation

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