Transforming Probation for Young People in California

Chief Probation Officers of California Partners with the Casey Foundation

Posted July 12, 2021, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Young Hispanic male

The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC) have formed a partnership to help advance efforts to transform juvenile probation in communities in California in ways that promote positive behavior change and long-term success for young people. Amid changes in California’s youth justice system, including the anticipated closing of state-run correctional facilities, this partnership is looking anew at how county-level probation can work in tandem with community partners to connect young people to the guidance, opportunities and support they need to thrive at home. In this blog post, probation refers to services for young people who are adjudicated and placed on community supervision.

The collaboration will include training and other technical assistance to county probation leaders and staff. The partnership stems from a shared understanding that transformation efforts can succeed only if they are shaped by the input and ideas of young people, family members and communities most affected by the probation system, as well as many others at the forefront of equitable youth justice reform in California.

“This is a great opportunity for broad-scale collaboration — from meaningful community partnerships to productive relationships with schools and law enforcement and more — on how young people can thrive in their own communities with stable connections to positive adults and activities,” says Steve Bishop, a senior associate at the Foundation.

“CPOC is dedicated to further advancing a probation system where young people build the skills and develop the capacities they need to succeed as adults,” says Karen Pank, CPOC’s executive director. “Crucial to that effort is bringing together all those working towards positive outcomes, including those in our communities whose voices may have been overlooked in the past. This partnership will help California seize the current momentum for system reform, build upon the work of the past decade and push it to an entirely new level.”

An opportune time

Beginning in July 2021, the state is implementing legislation that further realigns responsibilities from the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice to local counties. This follows years of advocacy and system improvements in California that have significantly reduced youth confinement and the number of young people on probation. A recognition that best practice requires keeping young people connected to their families and communities underlies these moves and is foundational to transforming juvenile justice in California. The massive shift of these functions to counties, as well as other new and proposed legislation in the state, makes this an opportune time to focus on probation services at the county level.

Why transform California’s juvenile probation system?

Probation is the most common disposition in juvenile justice in California, just as it is across the country. Given that fact, it is critical to examine probation practices to ensure they are aligned with the current understanding of youth development and to eliminate any practices that perpetuate the overrepresentation of Black, Latino and other youth of color in the justice system. Based on strategies that explicitly focus on race, research on adolescent behavior and brain development and evidence about interventions that consistently reduce delinquency, the Foundation has articulated a vision to get juvenile probation right. While California has lowered the number of youth placed on probation, counties in California have expressed readiness to continue to pursue the transformation of community supervision to include culturally relevant, community-centered approaches that will ensure the well-being of young people in their communities.

Beginning with training

Broader system reform requires probation agencies to have productive relationships with an array of partners, including community partners that bring connections, wisdom and credibility that public systems typically are unable to access when they act alone. With relationship-building in mind, the engagement will start with training in four areas that reflect the two organization’s shared goals and values:

  • family- and youth-centered engagement in probation practice;
  • case planning and practices aligned with positive youth development and adolescent brain research;
  • race equity and inclusion and the elimination of racial disparities; and
  • supporting the professional development of probation officers in collaboration with community partners and with input from youth, families and communities of color most affected by the youth justice system.

A broader collaboration with various stakeholders will identify other areas of technical assistance and additional priorities.

The Foundation’s contribution

The Casey Foundation will develop a training series for county-level probation agency leadership and frontline staff and will assist CPOC in identifying other partners to participate in the design, implementation and delivery of trainings and other consulting. The Foundation also will support data collection efforts so that counties can establish baselines and measure changes in their community supervision outcomes and results.

Casey’s objective is that probation becomes a relationship-based, time-limited intervention focused on brokering community connections for young people that will outlast their probation terms and support their behavior change and long-term success.

Community supervision should be used for young people with serious and repeat arrest histories — youth who would pose a significant risk for reoffending without support and guidance — and help them develop self-awareness and other critical life skills on the pathway to success in adulthood. For probation officers to develop this type of relationship with the young people on their caseloads, their caseloads need to be smaller. To get there, jurisdictions should significantly expand their use of diversion programs and approaches that hold youth accountable for their behavior outside of the court system.

“The goals are ambitious and will require a sustained effort on CPOC’s part to implement and deepen reforms,” Bishop says. “We anticipate that the strategies, methods and resources applied to this engagement will need to evolve as planning and implementation develops in phases.”

CPOC’s contribution

CPOC will focus on continuing to transform the organizational culture within county-level probation departments to further embrace and enhance the kinds of developmentally appropriate support and guidance that put youth on the right path and reduce their likelihood of rearrest.

CPOC also will promote productive relationships with its public and community partners — including the courts, schools, behavioral health, law enforcement as well as youth leaders and community and family advocates — to support youth to build skills and develop capacities they need to make better decisions and succeed as adults.

“The best outcomes are achieved when we work in the best interest of youth and in tandem with a broad network,” says Pank. “Probation in California continues to be a willing partner for effective reforms within our system and we are eager to engage in inclusive conversations to build on positive pathways for youth and to continue to help young people establish positive ties to their communities.”

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