Video Reframes Juvenile Probation Officer as Coach and Catalyst

Posted May 23, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A drawwing of a person at a crossroads with signs labeled "surviving" and "thriving"

A short video pro­duced by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion rede­fines the role of the juve­nile pro­ba­tion offi­cer to improve youth pro­ba­tion by using pow­er­ful evi­dence on ado­les­cent behav­ior and brain development.

The video advo­cates for pro­ba­tion offi­cers to serve as coach­es and cat­a­lysts for youth to suc­ceed on pro­ba­tion and beyond. In this capac­i­ty, the offi­cers con­nect youth with resources that help them build skills, devel­op a sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty and avoid reoffending.

Juve­nile pro­ba­tion aims to help reha­bil­i­tate young peo­ple and pre­vent them from deep­er involve­ment with the jus­tice sys­tem. Too often, how­ev­er, these youth are sub­ject to over­ly restric­tive rules, sur­veil­lance and even con­fine­ment when they mis­step, which occurs dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly for Black and Lati­no youth.

Pro­ba­tion offi­cers don’t enter this work to catch kids doing wrong. They enter this work to help kids suc­ceed,” says Steve Bish­op, asso­ciate direc­tor for sys­tem and pro­ba­tion trans­for­ma­tion with the Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. Bish­op — who nar­rates the video — knows this work first­hand. Ear­li­er in his career, he was a juve­nile pro­ba­tion offi­cer in Har­ris­burg, Pennsylvania.

Bri­an Lovins, past pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Pro­ba­tion and Parole Asso­ci­a­tion, likened pro­ba­tion offi­cers to coach­es in an arti­cle he co-authored for the Fed­er­al Pro­ba­tion Jour­nal. The video echoes this com­par­i­son, not­ing that offi­cers should nur­ture strengths — help­ing play­ers real­ize their full poten­tial — rather than act­ing as ref­er­ees who are ded­i­cat­ed to spot­ting and enforc­ing rule violations.

In their role as coach­es, pro­ba­tion offi­cers can build rela­tion­ships with young peo­ple and their fam­i­lies while gain­ing a clear­er sense of their chal­lenges and hopes. Such insights can help offi­cers gen­er­ate indi­vid­u­al­ized plans — tap­ping local men­tors, busi­ness own­ers, recre­ation direc­tors and oth­ers — to sup­port each youth on probation.

Research con­firms what most par­ents already know: Young peo­ple respond bet­ter to incen­tives for doing well than they do to threats of pun­ish­ment,” says Opal West, a senior asso­ciate with the Foun­da­tion and for­mer pro­ba­tion offi­cer. Such an approach has been test­ed with pro­ba­tion, and it works to moti­vate kids to do their best.”

Addi­tion­al Resources

Go to a video on trans­form­ing juve­nile probation

Read about fam­i­ly-engaged case plan­ning for youth on probation 

Explore fre­quent­ly asked ques­tions about juve­nile probation

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