Probation Must Be Reformed Nationwide By Focusing on Incentives

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probation: Person selling tickets for sports event.

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Six months ago, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced policies to reduce the number of children sent to juvenile placement. One focus was reforming probation, even though it is often thought of as an alternative to placement. 

In reality, juvenile probation is too often a gateway to further system involvement. 

probation: Nila Bala (headshot), criminal justice/ civil liberties associate director at R Street Institute, smiling woman with long brown hair, dark checked blazer.

Nila Bala

With close to half of delinquency cases resulting in probation, it is the most common disposition a juvenile can receive. Appropriately, probation is now the focus of a recent report by juvenile justice advocates. The report uses a resolution passed by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in 2017 to “advocate for empirically supported juvenile probation reform nationwide” and provides jurisdictions with practical suggestions on how to revise policies so that more young people can be successful on probation. 

As the authors write, probation places expectations on youth that do not account for their developmental differences from adults. Juveniles’ brains are still maturing, and their abilities to make logical decisions and process rewards and punishments have not fully developed. If reformed well, probation can harness what we know about brain science by incorporating incentives, rather than just sanctions, and setting realistic, short-term goals for kids. 

Unfortunately, many probation systems in this country are too quick to find youth in violation of their probation conditions, even when those violations are considered “technical,” such as missing curfew or skipping school rather than committing a new crime. Traditional probation often emphasizes surveillance and punishment instead of facilitating success by rewarding steps in the right direction. 

The report highlights two jurisdictions, Philadelphia and Pierce County, Wash., as examples that have translated policy into practice. Philadelphia uses a Graduated Response approach to juvenile probation. Youth are provided incentives for positive behaviors based on goals that youth and probation officers set together, and youth get to choose any parent or guardian-approved incentive on a list — for example, a later curfew or tickets to a sporting event

Goals can be both short-term and long-term, and performance does not have to be perfect to indicate success (i.e. perfect attendance versus gradual improvement). A field trial and pilot have yielded positive responses from probation officers in Philadelphia, and the department is planning to implement the Graduated Response system citywide in the coming year. 

Re-engineering probation to reflect what we know about youth development will be a win for youth and for public safety. Shifting probation from being surveillance-oriented can bring a myriad of positive outcomes: reducing incarceration, increasing school success and improving family dynamics. For example, Pierce County started a family involvement component of their probation program where officers and guardians work together to develop a plan for managing difficult youth behaviors, which has resulted in fewer conflicts at home for youth. 

Probation reform also helps our communities by keeping youth from further system involvement, whereas traditional probation may not help youth, or at worst, can actually make youth more likely to reoffend.  

We’ve made progress in juvenile justice. Youth arrests are down. We’re relying less on confinement. But as this recent report suggests, until we transform youth probation — the system’s most prevalent component — our work will be incomplete. 

Nila Bala is the criminal justice and civil liberties associate director at the R Street Institute and a former Baltimore assistant public defender.

2 thoughts on “Probation Must Be Reformed Nationwide By Focusing on Incentives

  1. Maryland has also recently implemented a graduated response system for youth on probation and aftercare.

  2. Thanks for this great article and for celebrating the good (and collaborative)reform work underway in Philadelphia with the DA’s Office and Juvenile Probation. Team work is making the dream work and Philly kids are the benefactors!