Casey Foundation: Time To Scale Down, And Blow Up, Juvenile Probation

Last April, at the most recent gathering of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), Casey Senior Associate Steve Bishop said that Casey would “in the near future” release a white paper making the case that juvenile probation must endure a complete 180-degree turn.

“The idea of a list of conditions has no effect,” Bishop said at the 2017 conference. “Being risk-averse is an adult construct. Those work for adults, it does not work for adolescents. That’s not how they’re wired.”

The “near future” is now. This week, the foundation released a paper arguing that the traditional approach to juvenile probation involves far too many youths, and engages them in a way that evolving research suggests is futile.

Transforming Juvenile Probation: A Vision for Getting It Right” calls for a metamorphosis of juvenile probation “into a purposeful intervention targeted to youth who pose significant risk for serious reoffending,” such as the one developed by Pierce County.

juvenile probation

The Annie E. Casey Foundation argues for less use of juvenile probation, and a different approach to the work.

The paper marks the most visible inclusion of community-based juvenile justice reform in the Casey agenda. JDAI has for more than 20 years worked on lowering the reliance on juvenile detention centers to hold youth before they faced a judge; this decade, the foundation expanded its work to the deep end of the system, with a goal of halving the number of youths who are committed to locked facilities.

The Casey paper estimates that 383,000 youth – either as a result of being found delinquent or through an informal diversion – are referred to a mesh of city, county and state probation systems that nationally total about 20,000 workers and a $2 billion annual cost. Non-white youth are overrepresented in the probation referral group: white youth comprise 56 percent of the under-18 population, but just 45 percent of the youth on probation.

The paper cites a litany of research to support its thesis that the current model of juvenile probation is not working, including a 2013 University of Cincinnati study that found “traditional community supervision … is ineffective.”

In his 2009 study analyzing the main factors that characterize effective juvenile interventions, researcher Mark Lipsey found that probation had a low impact while counseling, skill-building and restorative justice reduced juvenile reoffending.

The solution, per Casey’s paper, is a two-prong reform that includes the following:

  • Greatly downsizing the probation universe by “diverting a greater share of cases from the juvenile court system (i.e., formal court processing and any form of probation supervision.”
  • Reorienting probation away from surveillance and punishment, and toward youth development and incentives for positive behavior.

The first part, Casey argues in the paper, would be accomplished by limiting probation referrals to serious violent offenders, who act with premeditation; youth charged with a second violent felony; or a youth who has been charged with a third felony of any kind.

Any youths adjudicated with other types of felonies or misdemeanors would be slated for some level of diversion program, such as a civil citation or a restorative justice program. The limitations on probation will bring the percentage of diverted juvenile referrals from 44 percent to 60 percent, “and likely much more than that,” according to the paper.

In perhaps its most provocative proposal, the foundation suggests that failure to complete diversion programs should not trigger an automatic refiling of the case in court.

“The threat of possible adjudication may help compel compliance by youth in diversion,” the paper said, but “most youth grow out of delinquent behavior without any intervention, and formal processing substantially increases the likelihood of future arrests, while doing little or nothing to improve behavior.”

For those youths who are sent to probation, Casey proposes a system that is not defined by surveillance and violations, and instead focuses on goals and positive behavior.

Such a system would lean on “families and communities to promote personal growth, positive behavior change and long-term success,” according to the paper.

One model for reform held out by the paper is the pilot project being tested in Pierce County, Washington, which Bishop – who started his career as a probation officer in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania – touted during last year’s presentation at the JDAI Conference.  The program offers small but escalating prizes for youth who move through probation without incident. And perhaps more important than that is the chance for probation to be ended early.

It’s called the “Opportunity-Based Probation” pilot, which county Probation Manager Kevin Williams conceded at the presentation last year was a rhetorical dance around calling it incentive-based.

“There is lot of pushback on the word ‘incentive,’” Williams said. “We heard, ‘You’re paying kids to commit crimes!’”

The program is only in its first year of operation.

Also name-checked in the report is the “team support” probation strategy built by the 22nd Judicial Circuit of Missouri, which oversees St. Louis. The approach involves court and probation officers working with family members and other adults in a youth’s life to devise a success plan.

Since its inception in 2014, the share of youth referred back to court on new charges while on probation has fallen 59 percent. The model was recognized with an Excellence in Programming award by the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association in 2016.

The foundation plans to continue developing probation reform plans in Pierce County and Lucas County, Ohio, and plans to work with its current JDAI sites “to encourage and support their efforts to review their probation practices.” Casey also plans to publish a probation transformation “playbook” based on the work in Ohio and Washington.

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