Probation plays a pivotal role in the juvenile justice system. More young people who enter the nation’s juvenile justice system wind up on probation than any other outcome. Every year, nearly half a million youth are given some form of probation, and more than half of them are youth never found delinquent in court or who commit status offenses ― conduct that would not be a crime if it were committed by an adult, such as skipping school or possessing alcohol.
How does juvenile probation work?
Many common practices in probation are problematic or counterproductive. While juvenile probation practices vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, even officer to officer, the core element of the probation experience involves (1) a judge who imposes a list (often a long one) of rules and requirements that the young person must follow and (2) a probation officer who then keeps tabs on the youth to monitor compliance. When youth on probation disobey these rules — by failing a drug test, breaking curfew or missing appointments — they may be found in violation of probation and punished accordingly, up to and including incarceration.
Does juvenile probation work?
Evidence shows that juvenile probation doesn’t work to reverse delinquent behavior. At its best, probation offers court-involved youth who would otherwise be confined the chance to remain in the community and participate in constructive and therapeutic activities. But despite the dedication and admirable intentions of probation professionals, probation often pulls young people deeper into the system without offering the support and guidance that would put them on the right path and reduce the likelihood of reoffending.
Inequality within the juvenile probation system
As the most common disposition, probation plays a large role in perpetuating the vast and continuing overrepresentation of African-American, Latino and other youth of color in juvenile justice. In 2017, the most current year for which data is available, 55% of all probation dispositions involved youth of color — far higher than their share of the total youth population (46%). Even more worrisome, 64% of young people held in residential custody in 2017 for a technical violation — which usually involves breaking probation rules rather than being charged with a new offense — were youth of color.
Surveillance-oriented probation lags behind knowledge of youth development. The developmental arc of the human brain shows why this heavy emphasis on surveillance and rule following does not succeed. The brain does not fully mature until age 25, and lawbreaking and other risky behaviors are commonplace during adolescence. Most youth grow out of lawbreaking without any intervention from the justice system.
Given research on adolescent behavior and brain development and evidence about interventions that consistently reduce delinquency, the knowledge exists now to get juvenile probation right.
The Casey Foundation shares its vision for transforming juvenile probation into a focused intervention that promotes personal growth, positive behavior change and long-term success for young people with serious and repeat arrest histories.
This report explores the Casey Foundation’s Deep-End Initiative, which has demonstrated that juvenile justice jurisdictions can safely and significantly reduce youth confinement — especially for young people of color. Read the report to learn more.