The Role of the Judge in Transforming Juvenile Probation

A Tool Kit for Leadership

Posted July 29, 2021
By the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges
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Three young people, two young men and one young woman, standing near one another, smiling. Above them is the headline for the publication, which reads: The Role of the Judge in Transforming Juvenile Probation.


This tool kit — produced by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges — equips judges with practical strategies and recommendations designed to overhaul and improve America’s approach to juvenile probation.

This advice spans five areas of juvenile probation practice: 1) individualized case planning; 2) opportunity-based probation with youth-oriented incentives; 3) conditions of probation orders; 4) alternatives to confinement in response to technical violations of probation; and 4) appropriate dispositions for youth involved in serious delinquency.

For each area, the tool kit identifies research-based practice recommendations, racial and ethnic equity considerations, data needs, implementation challenges, and steps that judges can take — on and off the bench — to probation transformation.

The juvenile justice’s field’s emerging consensus for transforming probation is informed by the excessive number of youth formally involved in the system as well as the pervasive racial and ethnic disparities that persist in jurisdictions across the country.

Designed to align probation with emerging research on adolescent behavior and brain development, this vision has two key components: 1) expanded diversion; and 2) probation practice designed to achieve long-term behavior change, primarily for youth with serious arrest histories and complex needs.

The conventional model of juvenile probation, with its emphasis on surveillance and rule-compliance, is inconsistent with the latest research on adolescent development and brain science. Specifically, research shows that better outcomes can be achieved when probation agencies:

  • Connect youth on probation with credible messengers and mentors;
  • Partner with families.
  • Engage young people on probation in positive youth development activities tailored to their interests and talents.
  • Utilize incentives and rewards, rather than the threat of sanctions.
  • Expect and plan for occasional behavioral setbacks by youth on probation.
  • Keep probation terms to a few months rather than a year or two years.

Findings & Stats

Statements & Quotations

Key Takeaway

Judges have a pivotal and powerful role to play in leading probation reform efforts

In all systems, judges have ultimate authority to determine what conditions should — and should not — be included in a young person’s probation orders and to limit or eliminate the use of confinement in response to non-compliant behavior. Equally important: judges have considerable influence as leaders in their local justice systems. They can convene key stakeholders, hold these stakeholders accountable, and engage system-involved youth and their families in shaping probation policy and practice.