The recently released publication from the Annie E. Casey Foundation on probation transformation contains information that has been published and practiced in numerous jurisdictions across the country for more than a decade. Given the troubled pace of reform in far too many jurisdictions on behalf of our nation’s most precious resource — our children and youth — one can nonetheless never have too many reminders of the key components necessary to improve outcomes and opportunities for this invaluable portion of our population.
However, the publication understates that a substantial and powerful transformation has already begun in jurisdictions throughout the nation.
In fact, the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice has been actively engaged in intensive probation system transformation through technical assistance partnerships with probation and juvenile justice system leaders, practitioners and relevant stakeholders in 25 individual jurisdictions over the past 13-plus years. This volume of work represents a significant sample size.
Our work is deliberately represented in our publications and practice as probation system reform to ensure that probation agencies work collaboratively with judges, prosecutors, public defenders, educators and community partners (e.g. service providers, pro-social supports). This intentionality has frequently achieved an interwoven set of practices and approaches that has produced sustainable juvenile justice reform resulting in positive outcomes for probation- and system-involved youth.
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Our Probation System Guidebook, 2nd edition and the “Translating the Science of Adolescent Development to Sustainable Best Practice” brief lays out a proven framework (not model) and details the specific areas of reform for achieving probation and juvenile justice system transformation. The technical assistance provided through the guidance of these publications and the RFK National Resource Center focuses on applying collaborative principles; requires clear articulation of the mission, vision, goals and outcomes; examines alternatives to formal processing for all referrals; commits to risk-needs-responsivity instruments to inform professional judgement; reviews screening practices for trauma and mental health needs; assesses for positive youth development practices that promote behavioral change; emphasizes family engagement at all points of system and community involvement; analyzes timely case processing related to fairness and equitable treatment for all, and assesses for effective quality assurance and improvement methodologies.
Where the Annie E. Casey Foundation report asserts that current efforts have been too narrow, we would highlight that our focus is and always has been about system reform and transformation by targeting these effective practices. There are scores of probation and juvenile justice system stakeholders who will attest to the results produced by their commitment to this probation system review process.
It is noteworthy that the publication headlines an assertion (page 47) that “perhaps the most fundamental shortcoming of current juvenile probation reform efforts is the failure to directly address the core mission of probation.” Later in the paragraph it is acknowledged with the final footnote (No. 114) there is “one exception” to that conclusion. The RFK National Resource Center is pleased that it is our work referenced in this footnote; our work that in partnership with other reputable organizations has engaged jurisdictions in one-third of the states in this transformation process. Given this expansive history of transformative work and the dedicated and diligent efforts of so many innovative leaders and practitioners, we feel it is critical to acknowledge this progress.
The RFK National Resource Center and its array of partner organizations and distinguished technical assistance consultants welcome more partners to the challenge of improving the lives of our nation’s youth and their families. There is certainly a great deal of work to be done, and promoting a vision of probation transformation is vital to those efforts. The emphasis on reserving probation for higher-risk youth, empowering families and engaging communities, focusing on positive youth development and rooting reform in the science of adolescent development is absolutely imperative and a clearly shared perspective.
The field is fortunate to have examples of jurisdictions that have worked to redefine juvenile probation to align with these components. The dedicated Probation System Reform Practice Network at the RFK National Resource Center is comprised of leaders who have embraced these goals and have realized success. These professionals, along with our staff, are committed to educating and supporting jurisdictions joining the effort. On their behalf, we are steadfast in our belief that the transformation has already begun, and we applaud the state and local visionaries and champions that have courageously led the way.
John A. Tuell, BSW, MA, is the executive director for the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice at Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps. Before that, he directed and oversaw RFK Children’s Action Corps’ participation and active involvement in the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice Initiative and has held juvenile justice leadership positions within the Child Welfare League of America and the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention during his professional career.