In 2015, the most recent year for which we have comprehensive data, there were approximately 48,000 youth in residential placement facilities across the country. That’s down 55 percent from 1999, when our juvenile justice systems housed more than 100,000 young people.
This significant decline suggests that the push for decarceration of youth is working. Fewer young people are being removed from their homes and communities for behaviors that come into conflict with the law. What we haven’t seen, however, is a corresponding decrease in the use of juvenile probation to sanction young people for delinquency or status offenses. Over the same time period, the proportion of kids who come into contact with the juvenile justice system (whether petitioned or nonpetitioned, adjudicated or nonadjudicated) who receive probation has remained relatively static.
While this may sound like good news, these trends actually tell a different story. Fiscal pressures and new research are prompting jurisdictions to move away from incarceration as an effective response for dealing with most young people who commit delinquent or other offenses. However, increasingly, these jurisdictions are putting pressure on juvenile probation departments to perform almost all the traditional roles of juvenile corrections: to monitor, intervene, sanction, hold accountable and rehabilitate youth.
Given this multifaceted mandate as well as the overarching need to preserve public safety, it is perhaps no wonder that many juvenile probation departments and courts err on the side of caution by imposing restrictive conditions on the young people under their supervision. Every sitting juvenile court judge and every active juvenile probation officer would, understandably, rather not risk the safety of the public by showing leniency to a young person who may have broken the law.
The problem with an overly punitive approach to juvenile probation is that, simply put, it does not work. In his soon-to-be released monograph, “Youth on Probation: Bringing a 20th Century Service Into a Developmentally Friendly 21st Century World,” Robert G. Schwartz, co-founder and executive director emeritus of the Juvenile Law Center, and 2016-2017 Stoneleigh Foundation Visiting Fellow, describes the difficulty this presents for juvenile probation officers:
“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.” What we now know from developmental science is that there are approaches to juvenile probation that may hold young people accountable while still ushering them toward more productive and prosocial behavior.
The “graduated response” approach, now being piloted by the Philadelphia Juvenile Probation Department, in partnership with Naomi Goldstein, a Drexel University professor of psychology and Stoneleigh Fellow, emphasizes rewards and incentives for positive and compliant behavior, rather than merely sanctions for negative or noncompliant behavior.
It includes opportunities for young people to exercise decision-making skills and enlists them as partners in designing their own pathways to successful completion of probation, rather than prolonging it with unattainable or unrealistic behavioral expectations. Not only is this approach more aligned with the original purposes of our juvenile justice system, there is also growing evidence that it is more effective than overly punitive approaches to juvenile probation.
In Pierce County (Tacoma), Washington, the juvenile probation department instituted what they call their opportunity-based probation program, an incentive-based system that rewards probationers for meeting goals. Using a point system, the program provides young people with an opportunity to accumulate points, earn prizes and ultimately receive recognition at a graduation ceremony. Incentives offered to youth in the program include YMCA memberships, internships and the chance to have their probation supervision terminated early.
In his upcoming monograph, Bob Schwartz draws lessons from Pierce County and other jurisdictions, outlining several principles for reforming juvenile probation to comport with new adolescent brain science while still holding youth accountable. These include an abandonment of boilerplate conditions, a recognition of youth as individuals and an avoidance of harm to young people under supervision by not setting them up for failure with impractical restrictions.
Ultimately, jurisdictions must grapple not only with ways to revamp the processes in their juvenile probation departments, but also with how to change a way of thinking and a culture that may be more closely aligned with law enforcement than with a supportive social services model. The 21st-century juvenile probation department should be modeled on 21st-century research, which tells us that kids on probation can be held accountable, and can succeed, if we create expectations and goals that are realistic, achievable and developmentally appropriate.
Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.