Alternatives to Juvenile Justice Probation Growing in Many States, Report Finds

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Research by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that states are turning to more effective programs that incentivize and mentor young offenders rather than punish them.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says that while states have taken steps to improve probation and crime prevention services for young people, little is known about how state law has governed and influenced juvenile probation policy. So the organization spent two months finding out.

With support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, NCSL created an online statutory compilation of juvenile probation laws called the Juvenile Probation Scan designed to provide policymakers information to examine and address juvenile probation policy. The scan compiles state juvenile probation statutes in an accessible format while providing explanation and analysis of the many aspects of juvenile probation.

Four key findings emerged from NCSL’s research:

Alternative Justice Programs

NCSL’s research shows a growing number of states are using alternative justice programs instead of traditional probation. Many of the alternatives are designed to provide young people with opportunities to avoid the juvenile justice system or to avoid formal sentencing. 

Young people who go through alternative programs typically are not supervised by a probation officer. They also are not placed in confinement for violating any rules, given increasing sanctions or an opportunity to continue compliance.

Youth who go through alternative justice typically only meet with their “supervising authority” as required by the program or not at all, as opposed to mandatory routine meetings with a probation officer.

Alternative justice statutes look very different across the states, but according to the NCSL, there are two primary forms—pre-adjudication and post-adjudication. In 35 states there is a pre-adjudication alternative justice or diversion program. In addition, 11 states have post-adjudication alternative justice or diversion programs in statutes.

The report points out several states’ efforts: South Carolina pre-adjudication law that includes a youth mentor program; Oregon’s pre-adjudication law that allows for youth courts, mediation programs, crime prevention or chemical substance abuse education programs; and Maine’s Juvenile Code that include preference to in-home care and guidance, the young person’s welfare, and strengthening family ties, among other things.

Standard Probation Term Limits

One criticism of juvenile probation is that in some cases it’s applied unequally, for a variety of reasons, within a state, but the report shows that’s changing. For instance, Kentucky, Arizona and New York have uniform term limits. Kentucky and Arizona limit probation to one year if certain criteria are met, and New York limits probation to one year, but allows for an extension of one more year. New York’s maximum is two years. 

Other states have more complex models for deciding term limits. In Kansas, the length of probation is based on risk assessment and offense type, ranging from six months to 12 months. Texas has a progressive sanctions model that also includes probation provisions for crimes such as sexual and handgun offenses.

Probation surveillance models

The association’s research shows that the traditional juvenile probation survellience model, similar to the adult model, is not effective. In the traditional model, young people are allowed to remain in the community under certain conditions, such as curfew, drug tests or community service, with strict supervision and punish- ment for noncompliance. Some states now are using a structured system of incentives and sanctions designed to motivate youth to succeed on probation.

Nebraska, of example, uses a graduated response model. Within the framework, incremental, proportionate and predictable responses are delivered so youths’ positive behaviors are encouraged, and negative behaviors are met with structure, expectations and skill- building opportunities. 

Meanwhile, Texas has adopted a progressive sanctions model that provides for up to seven sanction levels with increasing severity, based on the young person’s conduct and their offense.

Probation Officer Standards

What has been absent from statute in many states are requirements for juvenile probation officers, the NCSL’s report states. However, a few states now have requirements for the hiring, training and authority granted, including: 

  • South Carolina, which requires juvenile probation officers to have a college degree and training in the social sciences and “character as would render the officer suitable for the functions of juvenile probation officer.” They are considered peace officers.
  • New Mexico, which specifies that parole officers do not have the same powers of a law enforcement officer, but can take youth into custody if there is “reasonable cause” to believe the child violated their probation.
  • Louisiana, which provides enumerated authority to juvenile probation officers. The law gives these officers authority to make arrests, serve notices, subpoenas and more.

The key takeaways from the research include:

  • Improving probation and diversion programs can be an opportunity for better outcomes for a large population of juveniles.
  • Local and targeted reform can become the building block for state policy adjustments.
  • Probation reform can help reduce racial and ethnic disparities.

To view the paper based on research by the National Conference of State Legislatures click here.  For a look at NCSL’s Juvenile Probation Scan designed to provide policymakers information to examine and address juvenile probation policy click here.

Brent Woodie is an associate editor at Route Fifty. Jean Dimeo is managing editor at Route Fifty.

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