HARRISBURG, Pa. – A new report says reforming probation practices for juveniles could increase their chances for success.
In the past 20 years, juvenile justice system reforms have led to far fewer young people being held in juvenile detention centers.
But the report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation says little has changed in the use of probation for young people.
According to Steve Bishop, senior associate at the AECF Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, probation is too often used as another form of punishment.
“The research that we have about adolescent development is pretty convincing that young people respond better to rewards, incentives, opportunities, experiences – things like that, that better motivate them – than the threat of punishment,” he points out.
The report recommends transforming juvenile probation from a system based on compliance and sanctions to one of incentives and individualized goals.
Pennsylvania has developed a Juvenile Justice System Enhancement Strategy with an emphasis on family and community involvement.
John Cookus, an assistant professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, points out that relying on probation alone doesn’t work.
“Juvenile probation casts too wide a net, and it draws in youth who really don’t need to be there, and increases the volume of young people who get caught up in the system,” he states.
A 2014 study in Ohio found that low-risk young people placed on probation were 50 percent more likely to re-offend than those who weren’t placed on probation.
Bishop points out that recent research into adolescent brain development suggests taking juvenile justice practices in a new direction would enhance both community safety and the futures of young people.
“Reduce probation caseloads by diverting greater share of cases from juvenile court altogether,” he states, “and then refashioning probation into a more targeted, focused and effective intervention for the smaller population of youths that would remain on caseloads.”
The report notes that smaller caseloads let probation officers work more intensively with families and communities to help young people thrive.