The common image of a probation department is a bland government building where a stern man sits with a clipboard, tapping his watch, waiting for an accused person to show up and explain if they’ve complied with a stay-out-of-trouble plan. If they haven’t complied, or if they fail to reach sometimes far-away probation offices, the accused could wind up in jail without having committed a new crime.
But on Tuesday, a group of reform-minded current and former probation commissioners gathered virtually to share a radically different vision, at least for the more than 300,000 juveniles who become involved in probation each year.
They also entertained the most profound reform possible: ending juvenile probation, rebuilding from scratch a system that disproportionately ensnares Black youth and which is part of the same broader criminal system that sparked widespread racial justice protests this year.
The first response to accused youth probably shouldn’t be the courts, said New York City Commissioner of Probation Ana Bermúdez. She joined five other former and current probation officials for a nearly two-hour seminar organized by the Stoneleigh Foundation of Philadelphia, which provides funding to researchers, policymakers and local officials pursuing youth-focused reforms.
“If we wanted to create the most antithetical system to adolescent development, it’s the adversarial, law-based, guilt-or-innocence dichotomy we’ve created,” said Bermúdez. “To me, blow the whole thing up.”
She and her counterparts on the West Coast described some incremental efforts to begin to do that.
The probation manager of Pierce County, Washington, which includes Tacoma, said his department has undertaken a multi-decade effort to adopt a more pro-social approach to dealing with young people. Working with the University of Washington, the department offered rewards to youth who followed probation plans, instead of jail threats for lack of compliance. The rewards could include material goods like vouchers for movies or a haircut, opportunities to participate in community events, or reduced probation.
“We all know young people are way more driven by incentives, instead of punishment,” said Kevin Williams, assistant administrator for probation in Pierce County’s Juvenile Court in eastern Washington, citing the decades of psychology research on youth development and describing the initiative’s results after three years as “promising.”
His department has also turned to programs ranging from woodworking to yoga, and relies on so-called credible messengers who have had contact with the criminal system themselves earlier in life.
Still, even with the help of university researchers and a partnership with the prominent reform philanthropy the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Williams said much more needs to be done.
“We recognized we had a long way to go and still had so much work to do with a system that was inherently racist and oppresses folks of color,” he said.
Another former probation chief, David Muhammad, described a similar experiment taking place in now in Oakland, California. When police arrest young people for felonies, they can immediately refer them to a panel of neighborhood leaders, including pastors, business owners, formerly incarcerated people and victims of crime.
Without any threat of incarceration, youth discuss what supports they or their families need, and are assigned a supportive coach to help access resources. Thirty young people so far have been diverted to these “Neighborhood Opportunity and Accountability Boards,” without any court appearance. Some are accused of serious felonies.
The board holds meetings on Zoom calls due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s actually worked out better than I expected,” said Muhammad, who is now the executive director of the National Institute of Criminal Justice Reform and a former Alameda County probation chief. “They come before what is designed to be a council of elders or tribal council, taking the administration of justice back to its origins,” before probation existed, he said.
Muhammad said the project should be a good candidate for government support, since it helps offset the costs to taxpayers for incarceration. There hasn’t been a single re-arrest of any of the youth involved.
Participants in the call moderated by the former president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Patrick McCarthy, regretted that these reform efforts have yet to significantly change the overrepresentation of Black and Latino youth in probation systems. It’s the most distinctive characteristic of probation across the country, yet too often people in probation departments blame external forces, like disparities in who is arrested, said Stephen Bishop, a senior associate in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.
“We’re so focused on system stakeholders having the solutions, the results are predictable,” Bishop said.
Bermúdez said in New York her department had calculated that Black youth come into probation at 15 times the rate of white youth, unchanged by steep declines in youth arrest and detention over the past decade.
Vincent Schiraldi, Bermúdez’ predecessor as probation commissioner in New York and co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, argued that now is the best time for the justice systems across the country to seriously weigh whether youth should be on probation at all.
“If we didn’t exist, would you invent us? Or would you pay churches, pay nonprofit organizations, pay credible messengers in your community to provide some level of support and services, without inventing probation?” Schiraldi said. “At a very elemental level we should ask that question at this moment. If we’re not going to ask it at this moment, when ever are we going to ask it?”