More juvenile justice experts agree that detention or incarceration should never be threatened or invoked when young people break rules imposed on them as conditions of probation. Over the last year, three influential organizations have joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s call for more effective responses to technical violations.
The Foundation’s May 2018 report, Transforming Juvenile Probation: A Vision for Getting It Right, made the case for eliminating confinement as a sanction for technical violations of probation, affirming a position taken earlier by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Since then, a report from the Council of State Government’s Justice Center and Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform called on juvenile justice systems nationwide to “ban the detention and incarceration of youth for technical violations of probation and parole.” The Urban Institute expressed its view in an October 2018 report: “Given the negative impacts of incarceration on youth outcomes, bridging research and practice would require strictly limiting the use of confinement for technical violations.”
Ending the practice of confining young people for rule violations would have significant ramifications. The most recent Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement from the U.S. Department of Justice found that 23% of youths in custody nationwide are confined for technical violations — either for breaking rules imposed on them as part of their probation or for violating court orders stemming from a status offense, which is conduct that would not be a crime if it were committed by an adult, such as skipping school or possessing alcohol. In many jurisdictions, more youth are sent to secure residential facilities for technical violations than for violent felonies or any other type of lawbreaking behavior. More than two-thirds of young people confined in residential facilities for technical violations in 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, were youth of color — far above their share of the nation’s youth population.
“Probation is at its best when it is focused on the personal growth and long-term success of young people,” says Nate Balis, the director of Casey’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. “Getting probation right means emphasizing support, not compliance; incentives, not sanctions; and individualized expectations and goals that can motivate a young person far more than court conditions.”
What works instead of confinement? Studies indicate that incentives for positive behavior and other approaches appropriate to adolescent development can be more effective. A recent third-party evaluation by the Urban Institute found that two communities, Lucas County, Ohio, and Pierce County, Washington, had made significant progress in using such approaches to transform their probation systems.
In addition, the juvenile court in Santa Cruz County, California, no longer places youth into correctional facilities or residential programs for technical violations. Probation staff use a system of constructive responses when young people fail to meet the expectations in their case plans. These responses, which probation officers tailor to a young person’s behavior, reduced the number of youths detained for probation violations from 62 in 2011 to just 10 in 2017.
And in 2015, the city of St. Louis began using a new Team Support Approach, in which family members and other adults involved in a young person’s life work with probation officers and the young person to help formulate and revise probation case plans, monitor the young person’s progress over time and conduct problem-solving sessions. Young people who left probation in 2016 and early 2017 were less than half as likely to have technical violations if at least one such meeting was held. Overall, the share of youth on probation referred back to court on new charges in St. Louis fell from 34% in 2014 to 22% in 2016 and 14% in the first half of 2017.