OP-ED: Juvenile Probation – Time to Take a Hard Look at What We Are Doing

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John Tuell

Our nation’s array of probation and juvenile services departments in some way touch the lives of almost every youth having contact with the juvenile justice system.

These departments are involved with the youth at intake/referral, diversion, pre-adjudication and disposition proceedings, and ongoing probation supervision — all the key decision points that impact the young person, their family and the safety of the community.

Having spent more than half of my professional career working in such a court services department, and the second half of my career working to shape reforms with similar departments across the country, it is evident we do not adequately hold ourselves accountable for the efficacy of our labor and the outcomes of the youth and families we intend to serve. Probation and court services departments need to consider whether it is functioning optimally and whether it is producing positive outcomes for their youth, families and communities.

Do current policies and procedures support effective practice? In many departments it is unclear what outcomes probation officers are seeking — or even that client outcomes should be the focus of their activities.  Without this focus, probation officers often turn their attention to meeting contact frequency and paperwork requirements, which often has little if any impact on adolescent behavior.

Traditional interactions between probation officers and young people are frequently brief and focus too heavily on monitoring compliance and court-imposed conditions rather than developing rapport and supporting an intrinsic motivation to improve behavior. This is truly a missed opportunity, as current research suggests the relationship established between probation officers and youth is of the utmost importance in securing positive outcomes.

Are standardized and validated risk and needs assessments used to guide decision-making and planning? Even where such assessments are routinely used, case plans and targeted treatment interventions are often not developed in accordance with the results. Research indicates that too often when forming treatment plans, priority is given to court mandated interventions rather than what is indicated by assessments. Despite the best intentions of probation officers, the failure to use the assessment findings to inform structured professional judgment undermines the ability to ameliorate the risks for re-offending. This often translates to decreased community safety and a deeper penetration of the youth into the costly deeper-end alternatives of the juvenile justice system.

Do programs reflect an evidence-base of efficacy? Often, programs are adopted without sufficient consideration of empirical research regarding effectiveness of the program with the specific population being referred.  The National Academy of Sciences, in a recent and comprehensive report, urges that “Programs for delinquents, whether evidence-based or not, should be subjected to rigorous evaluation to determine whether or not they are helpful, not just assumed to be so.” Data collection, management and analysis efforts are underutilized in routine oversight of program and department activities. The evaluation process frequently focuses only on outputs and not outcomes and is not effectively incorporated into policy and program reviews.

Our collective failure to consider these key aspects have resulted in less than ideal outcomes for youth involved with probation and court service interventions.

I do not offer a universal condemnation as there are exemplary jurisdictions and stellar probation workforces achieving youth outcomes we can celebrate. However, there are far too many probation departments that simply cannot make this claim — and we have to improve our accountability. To address these necessary considerations probation departments can, and should, undertake a probation system review.

Jefferson Parish, Louisiana undertook such a review, examining aspects of program planning and implementation, best practices and benchmarking, performance measurement and client outcomes, and intra-and interagency work processes. The findings of their extensive review resulted in 70 recommendations for improvement, and implementation of the recommendations has had impressive results:

  • Reduced unnecessary mental health evaluation costs by 23 percent and reinvested savings toward therapeutic services; access to evidence-based treatment practices soared from only 7 percent in 2009 to a remarkable 99 percent in 2012.

  • Recidivism declined from 53 percent to 20 percent.

  • Caseloads declined 37 percent and the number of youth in detention dropped 16 percent.  Savings from this drop were estimated to be $150,000 — $175,000.

  • Probation officers received training to enhance client-based outcomes, leading to updated job descriptions and eventually resulted in an increase of 14 percent in probation officer salaries.

The approach to the probation system review used in Jefferson Parish, as well as several other jurisdictions, is detailed in the Probation Review Guidebook (RFK Children’s Action Corps, 2011).  The process of implementing the resulting recommendations is the subject of Probation Review Implementation: How Everyday Practices Meet Best Practices (RFK Children’s Action Corps, 2013).

The structure of a probation system review is flexible, allowing departments to engage in a comprehensive review or to focus on identified priorities. Departments willing to take on the honest self-examination provided through a probation review process are likely to benefit their departments, their communities, and the youth and families they serve. We owe our troubled and challenging youth and their families — and the communities for whom we work — this improved professional accountability.

John A. Tuell currently serves as the Executive Director for the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps. Prior to this appointment, Mr. Tuell served as the Co-Director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice Initiative at the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps.

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