We’ve Learned a Lot About Reforming Probation Culture From Control to Assistance

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Probation is the most common court disposition for youth and therefore worthy of examination. “Getting probation right” often makes the difference between a youth exiting the justice system successfully or sliding deeper into the system. Depending on the jurisdiction, probation handles diversion decisions, oversees pretrial release programs, prepares social study reports, makes recommendations to judges on dispositions, makes referrals to services and programs, and directly provides post-dispositional community services and supervision.

Scott MacDonald (headshot), consultant, smiling man with short white and brown hair, gray suit, white shirt, dark tie.

Scott MacDonald

Probation recommendations have substantial influence within multiple systems yet practice and philosophy of departments and officers vary across the county and in many cases from probation officer to probation officer in the same jurisdiction. These variances and inequities are pronounced for youth of color who are overrepresented in the youth justice system. The fact that probation is so influential in system outcomes, yet remains ambiguous in practice, signifies its fertility for reform.

Probation control vs. assistance

From its inception in the United States, probation has functioned as an alternative to incarceration that contains elements of monitoring and support. John Augustus, the recognized founder of probation, convinced judges to bail adults involved in the criminal justice system into his custody. Individuals released to his supervision experienced compassion and support, as opposed to punishment. Because of his successful efforts, probation was formalized and expanded to national scale.

Since those beginnings, probation methods have largely been geared towards two somewhat opposing concepts: control vs. assistance.

Control refers to supervision, surveillance, drug testing, curfew, electronic monitoring, mandatory school attendance, abstaining from drugs and alcohol and compliance with probation rules.

A control model does not help a young person meet the challenges of adolescence; rather it stymies the acquisition of decision-making skills necessary for the transition into adulthood. In fact, extrinsic control often undermines adolescent development, leading to a power struggle between adult authority and youth autonomy

Assistance refers to the probation officer’s role in promoting positive development, providing restorative opportunities to repair harm, building youth competencies and skills, providing encouragement and incentives, connecting youth to services and promoting healthy connections to the probationer’s familial, educational, and community relationships.

A well-executed assistance model supports intrinsic growth and motivation. It assumes that youth inherently possess the capacity and desire for growth and change.

A control model is often equated as a mechanism to promote accountability, yet herein lies an important irony: that through assistance, youth are more apt to hold themselves accountable and make positive change than they will via a focus on compliance to mandates and rules applied from people in positions of authority. While JDAI and adolescent development research have helped advance the field of probation, the control model continues to be a prominent fixture in many probation departments

Questions and answers

In 2018, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published “Probation Transformation: A Vision for Getting it Right,” encouraging probation departments to maximize the number of youth involved in community-led diversion and promoting inclusive probation practices that support positive growth in youth and promote race equity in the justice system.

It is unlikely that we will truly transform probation until we first take a step back and ask ourselves:

  • What is the purpose of juvenile probation, who should it be intended for and what goals should we strive to achieve?  
  • What is our philosophy when working with youth, and is it consistent with principles of adolescent development?
  • How would we assess our daily probation practices with regards to control vs. assistance?
  • Are current practices consistent with our stated purpose, goals and philosophy?
  • What practices should be stopped, started or refined to achieve our vision?
  • How do we better partner with community and families?
  • How do we achieve racial and ethnic equity in probation practices?

To answer the above questions through a thoughtful, critical and inclusive process, consider the following steps:

Examine current practice and outcomes: Gather information on current probation outcomes disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, geography and offense (e.g., numbers on probation, length of time on probation, successful completion, response to technical violations) and conduct a culture assessment of current probation practices on the control and assistance continuum.

Establish vision and purpose: Convene cross-section of justice and community stakeholders, including youth and families; prime the pump with reading and trainings on adolescent development, and convene the stakeholders in a facilitated process to establish a mission statement of probation’s purpose from a perspective of race equity and inclusion.

Develop a plan: Based on the culture assessment of current probation practices on the control and assistance continuum, engage staff and stakeholders in a discussion about what current practices should be stopped, started or refined in order to fulfill our vision; and establish concrete steps and a road map to ensure that probation fulfills its purpose.

The work takes time and commitment. Yet, it must be done. It can be done. Promising examples from across JDAI sites include:

At one of the Probation Transformation Initiative sites, Lucas County, Ohio, has diverted misdemeanor youth from formal probation.

At the other Probation Transformation site, Pierce County, Wash., has implemented, consistent with the principles of adolescent development, Opportunity Based Probation (OBP) and an array of positive youth opportunities with an emphasis on race equity.

Summit County, Ohio, recently convened a probation retreat that utilized a control vs. assistance assessment process to transform probation practices. Santa Cruz County, Calif., continues to provide family-centered wraparound services through the FUERTE (Familias Unidas en Respecto Tranquilidad y Esperanza / Families United in Respect, Tranquility and Hope) program to reduce out-of-home placement for youth of color on probation.

How will you improve your probation practices?

Scott MacDonald currently consults on a full-time basis in California and nationally in the areas of juvenile and criminal justice reform. He retired in December 2014 from the chief probation officer position of the Santa Cruz County, Probation Department in California after a 30-year career in probation.

This post originally appeared on JDAIconnect.org.

2 thoughts on “We’ve Learned a Lot About Reforming Probation Culture From Control to Assistance

  1. Greg,
    Thank you for your response. You make an important point that deserves clarification. Absolutely, structure is important and rules and expectations are essential components of an assistance oriented probation approach that promotes intrinsic positive growth and ultimately involves family and natural supports in the process.

    The most extreme form control in probation practice, premised on the notion of public safety, is loss of liberty through incarceration and removal from home. Yet, we frequently find that a quarter of youth in juvenile detention facilities are in custody for breaking rules (technical probation violations) and in many jurisdictions that portion rises to nearly half the population when warrants for placement runaways and failing to make court appearances are included. These youth, often low public safety risk and non-violent, can get caught in a pattern of system generated failure caused by the overuse of this form of control. Additionally, there are too many low risk youth, predominately youth of color, exposed to probation for common adolescent behaviors that they will likely age out of. In these cases diversion would have been a better response. For youth impacted by trauma, these controls, particularly incarceration has devastating impact, even in facilities with the best conditions.

    I agree with many of the points you make, and I appreciate the opportunity to make these important points about the realities that continue to permeate probation practice as we attempt to get it right

  2. I enjoyed and agreed with this article overall – but it seems like an oversimplification and the vilification of one approach over another. The article stated:

    “Since those beginnings, probation methods have largely been geared towards two somewhat opposing concepts: control vs. assistance.”

    “A control model does not help a young person meet the challenges of adolescence; rather it stymies the acquisition of decision-making skills necessary for the transition into adulthood.”

    “A control model is often equated as a mechanism to promote accountability, yet herein lies an important irony: that through assistance, youth are more apt to hold themselves accountable and make positive change than they will via a focus on compliance to mandates and rules applied from people in positions of authority.”

    Instead, I’d argue that our goals should change with some adjustment to our methods. I’d argue that we need a high dose of both and a goal towards support or assistance. I don’t think control is unnecessary – simply that it should be viewed as the more temporary. Based on what we are learning about attachment, trauma, regulation, many of our youth have had disorganized caregiving and lack regulation skills.

    Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) suggests that young people from hard places need high doses of both structure AND nurture. Structure helps young people feel safe as they learn skills to regulate that are best taught in a nurturing way. I will agree that juvenile justice is too reliant on control or structure at the expense of nurture or assistance. This needs to change, but I’d be wary of throwing out structure.

    Research on the most effective probation officers has suggested that a mix of a law enforcement and social work approach is more effective than either singular approach.

    As a juvenile begins to show signs of self regulation – we should lean back from external and co-regulation, and lean into opportunities for self regulation. I tend to think this is a healthier transition into adulthood and independence. Thanks for the article. This is definitely a conversation we need to be having more often.

    Greg