Juvenile Probation Needs to Join 21st Century With Developmental Approach

By | May 7, 2018

In July 2017, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), adopted a resolution in support of developmentally appropriate juvenile justice probation services. The resolution, which built on earlier NCJFCJ policies, made clear that it “supports and is committed to juvenile probation systems that conform to the latest knowledge of adolescent development and adolescent brain science.” It “recommends that courts cease imposing ‘conditions of probation’ and instead support probation departments’ developing, with families and youth, individualized case plans that set expectations and goals.”

Every state has seen a decline in youth confinement over the last 20 years. But even before the decline in incarceration, most youth in the juvenile justice system were on some form of probation.

Although there are some jurisdictions across the country that are experimenting with innovative forms of probation supervision, too many probation departments operate much as they have for the last century. While the juvenile court itself was created because of developmental differences between teens and adults, juvenile probation has for the most part become a system of monitoring and control.

Most probation conditions are boilerplate

The challenge for juvenile courts and probation departments is to create and implement — in the terms of a 2014 National Research Council report — a “developmentally oriented approach” to community-based supervision that ensures “accountability,” promotes “public safety, and connects youth to services and interventions that are needed” to support probationers’ “prosocial development.”

A developmental approach recognizes youths’ incomplete brain development, the smaller capacity of their working memory, their “heightened sensitivity to rewards, and psychosocial immaturity.” A developmental approach realizes that youths are risk takers and are highly influenced by peers, “particularly in socially and emotionally charged situations.” These characteristics of “normal” adolescence are “often compounded by learning disabilities and mental health systems.”

In most jurisdictions today, youth who are on probation must comply with boilerplate “conditions of probation” that are rarely correlated to assessments of a young person’s risks and needs. They rarely vary by the age and developmental status of the youth. Probation officers infrequently probe to ensure that youth understand the conditions. Indeed, while some conditions are crystal clear to probation officers, they are often opaque to the youth they supervise. Ambiguous conditions can lead to probation officers or judges revoking probation and placing young people in residential facilities. Indeed, thousands of youth are detained each day for technical probation violations.

Roles of probation officer often in conflict

Must a young person comply with each condition 100 percent of the time? How many misses count as a probation violation? Does the answer depend on the juvenile probation officer? On the juvenile court judge? On the youth’s prior history? On the youth’s developmental capacity? On the youth’s race or ethnicity?

Do juvenile probation officers have the skills to help youth succeed in meeting those conditions or others that they impose? As Naomi Goldstein, Ph.D., Drexel University professor of psychology and Stoneleigh Fellow, has observed, probation officers identify many roles in their work with youth. They see themselves as monitor, enforcer, mentor/coach, parent, role model, change agent, case manager, therapist and court representative.

While some of these roles can be adapted to probation that is sensitive to adolescent development, these roles are often in conflict. Probation officers face the challenge not only of adopting a role or roles, depending on the circumstances, but on conveying his or her role to youth.

This should be done transparently, so young people know when they can give an honest response (“Have you been using drugs?”) in order for the juvenile probation officer to provide mentorship or case management. The young person must also know if the same response might lead to a return to court.

Incarceration is the ultimate sanction available to judges or probation officers when they interpret a young person’s behavior as “noncompliant.” Because judges cannot be seen as ignoring violations of orders, it is inevitable that at some point, for some youth, the judge will revoke probation. The result is a system in which juvenile probation officers may give less weight to their role as mentors who help youth overcome setbacks than they do to their role as monitors who compel compliance.

Barriers to developmental approach

What are the barriers to introducing a developmental approach to juvenile probation?

  • Most jurisdictions haven’t changed the job title and job description of juvenile probation officers in many years.
  • When deinstitutionalization occurs, it rarely comes with a transfer (reinvestment) of corrections funds into community-based services such as probation.
  • Probation departments think of caseloads, rather than workloads that will support a developmental approach.
  • Although teens routinely learn from their mistakes, probation at its heart is a risk-management system that has little tolerance for mistakes.
  • Other than reducing recidivism, there is rarely systemwide agreement on what counts as success.
  • Many jurisdictions have an entrenched reliance on boilerplate conditions of probation.

Guiding principles

Probation departments should be clear about their place in the juvenile justice system and should adopt clear goals. The following are adapted from Naomi Goldstein’s writings.

A developmentally designed juvenile probation system should include a graduated response system that will:

  1. Help youth improve decision making.
  2. Emphasize short-term, positive outcomes for probation-compliant behaviors.
  3. Be designed in such a way that enables youth to experience success almost immediately.
  4. Emphasize effort and improvement through a process of behavior change rather than expecting immediate, perfect compliance with probation requirements, goals and expectations.
  5. Create expectations and goals that address fewer behaviors at a time, rather than emphasizing all probation requirements, goals and expectations at once, while taking care to avoid unnecessarily extending the duration of probation.
  6. Utilize reinforcement (incentives, rewards and positive feedback) to motivate youth to meet expectations and goals and to help youth learn from their positive behaviors.
  7. Fairly sanction misbehavior, incorporating elements of procedural justice.
  8. Provide youth with opportunities to take part in prosocial activities and engage with positive peers (e.g., playing in a sports league, taking art classes).

In the course of managing risk and encouraging life success, juvenile probation should avoid doing harm.

While managing the risk of recidivism is an important goal of probation, it is not the only goal: Youth should, for example, gain problem-solving skills, improve academically and gain employment skills.

Probation decisions must advance pro-social goals

    • The decisions that judges and probation officers make about expectations and goals for a young person must make sense to that youth — the literature on legal socialization and procedural justice has taught us that youth are likely to respond well to adult decisions that seem fair.
    • Individualized juvenile probation services and conditions of probation require abandoning boilerplate conditions.
    • Juvenile probation should help youth meet expectations and goals: Juvenile court case plans should be individualized and include differential responses of sanctions and incentives.
    • Juvenile probation should set developmental goals for adolescents that include preparation for the exercise of rights and responsibilities that society assigns to adults: This means involving youth in decision making about their futures, even if they make choices that seem inapt.
    • Probation officers must recognize that not all needs are equally important when it comes to reducing recidivism: principles of risk, need and responsivity can help agencies improve outcomes and use resources more efficiently.

2 test sites

What might this look like in practice? The good news is that over the last 10 to 15 years, principles of adolescent development have been steadily diffused through the juvenile justice system.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is working with two Probation Transformation sites, Lucas County (Toledo), Ohio, and Pierce County (Tacoma), Washington to implement developmental approaches to juvenile probation.

Lucas County created a misdemeanor services unit and adopted a policy of diverting all misdemeanor cases, which comprise, on average, 70 percent of juvenile court referrals. This has reduced probation caseloads and enabled the probation department to revamp its approach to juvenile probation. Indeed, the county has virtually eliminated placements because of “violations of probation.”

Pierce County has instituted an opportunity-based probation program, an incentive-based system that rewards probationers for meeting goals. As youth accumulate points, they earn prizes and congratulations from the court, culminating in a graduation ceremony. The county has an incentive package that promotes positive youth development that includes options such as YMCA memberships, internships and early termination from probation.

There will be a ripple effect throughout the juvenile justice system if community-based juvenile probation becomes developmentally sound. There will be a tangible increase in the ability of a developmentally grounded juvenile probation department to change the course of a young person’s life. Youth, families, schools and communities will be the beneficiaries.

This was written when Robert Schwartz was a Visiting Fellow at Stoneleigh Foundation. He is Beck Chair in Law at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and executive director emeritus at the Juvenile Law Center.

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Robert Schwartz, JD