Juvenile probation professionals know better than most the multitude and complexity of issues our justice-involved youth are facing, and what puts these young men and women at risk for violence. Get IN Chicago, as a youth violence prevention funder working to support the most effective and promising interventions in Chicago, wanted to better understand the youth probation population to inform quality service provision.
Toward that end we commissioned Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago to conduct a study of youth entering probation in Chicago, which included identifying characteristics of youth involved in firearms violence while on probation. By examining aspects of their developmental history prior to entering probation, and reporting on their outcomes during adolescence and emerging adulthood, a clear set of commonalities emerged.
The study divided probation youth into subclasses based on previous involvement with the justice system: chronic, violent offences; chronic, nonviolent offenses, and first-time violent offenses. The chronic, violent offenses subclass profile emerged as the most accurate correlation with future involvement in gun violence. Youth in this class exhibited the following characteristics:
- A history of prior experiences of abuse and neglect
- Less likely to be involved in school
- Have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for emotional/behavioral disorders
- Many prior screenings for detention prior to probation
- Multiple arrests prior to probation
- Offenses for which probation was assigned are likely to include violent and/or property offenses
- A large number of both technical and nontechnical violations of probation after onset of probation episode.
These indicators should not be interpreted as deterministic of youth outcomes, but they can — and should — provide practical guidance for both public agencies like juvenile probation and nonprofit service providers when determining service plans, caseloads, monitoring and transitional supports for youth. While this data set is particular to Chicago, many of the risk factors hold for probation youth nationally, and the larger recommendation of configuring caseloads to risk factors reinforces a national perspective of reserving probation for only the highest-risk youth and realigning resources to better meet their needs.
More, smarter diversion
A youth who meets a number of these criteria is more likely to be in need of intensive or specialized support and services to promote successful outcomes. These high-need, high-risk youth — and Get IN Chicago research puts that number at between 2,000 and 4,000 individuals in Chicago — benefit from experienced caseworkers with small caseloads to effectively address the variety and depth of resources needed, the time-intensive building of trust, the accompaniment to referrals necessary to ensure youth are accessing programs and the overall intensity of the interventions and follow-up to ensure youth are on track and making progress.
The best case manager in the world can’t do that with 50-plus high-need youth. So how do we arrive at more manageable numbers? A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Transforming Juvenile Probation: A Vision for Getting It Right,” advocated for more diversion practices, which would reduce the parolee population overall and allow for caseload realignment: “Smaller caseloads should allow probation officers to work intensively with youth and partner with their families and communities to help young people thrive in school, pursue positive activities in their communities and build cognitive behavioral skills — such as improved decision making and increased capacities to control impulses, weigh consequences, resist negative peer pressure and navigate stressful situations.”
In addition to diversion, removing nonviolent offenders from probation rolls also allows for the highest-risk youth to be assigned the most experienced probation officers. This provides the time and flexibility for the probation officer to develop a customized service plan informed by the youth’s individualized needs and goals, and to solidify partnerships with community service organizations. Milestones met on a probationary youth’s service plan could then be used to reduce time on probation.
Developing and adhering to case management ratios that align known risk factors with the appropriate staff, services and level of support will go a long way in ensuring those most in need of interventions and services receive them.