We Can, Should Hold Kids on Probation Accountable in Developmentally Appropriate Way

Marie WilliamsIn 2015, the most recent year for which we have comprehensive data, there were approximately 48,000 youth in residential placement facilities across the country. That’s down 55 percent from 1999, when our juvenile justice systems housed more than 100,000 young people.

This significant decline suggests that the push for decarceration of youth is working. Fewer young people are being removed from their homes and communities for behaviors that come into conflict with the law. What we haven’t seen, however, is a corresponding decrease in the use of juvenile probation to sanction young people for delinquency or status offenses. Over the same time period, the proportion of kids who come into contact with the juvenile justice system (whether petitioned or nonpetitioned, adjudicated or nonadjudicated) who receive probation has remained relatively static.

While this may sound like good news, these trends actually tell a different story. Fiscal pressures and new research are prompting jurisdictions to move away from incarceration as an effective response for dealing with most young people who commit delinquent or other offenses. However, increasingly, these jurisdictions are putting pressure on juvenile probation departments to perform almost all the traditional roles of juvenile corrections: to monitor, intervene, sanction, hold accountable and rehabilitate youth.

Given this multifaceted mandate as well as the overarching need to preserve public safety, it is perhaps no wonder that many juvenile probation departments and courts err on the side of caution by imposing restrictive conditions on the young people under their supervision. Every sitting juvenile court judge and every active juvenile probation officer would, understandably, rather not risk the safety of the public by showing leniency to a young person who may have broken the law.

The problem with an overly punitive approach to juvenile probation is that, simply put, it does not work. In his soon-to-be released monograph, “Youth on Probation: Bringing a 20th Century Service Into a Developmentally Friendly 21st Century World,” Robert G. Schwartz, co-founder and executive director emeritus of the Juvenile Law Center, and 2016-2017 Stoneleigh Foundation Visiting Fellow, describes the difficulty this presents for juvenile probation officers:

“They see themselves as monitor, enforcer, mentor/coach, parent, role model, change agent, case manager, therapist, and court representative. While some of these roles can be adapted to probation that is sensitive to adolescent development, these roles are often in conflict. Probation officers face the challenge not only of adopting a role or roles, depending on the circumstances, but on conveying his or her role to youth.” What we now know from developmental science is that there are approaches to juvenile probation that may hold young people accountable while still ushering them toward more productive and prosocial behavior.

The “graduated response” approach, now being piloted by the Philadelphia Juvenile Probation Department, in partnership with Naomi Goldstein, a Drexel University professor of psychology and Stoneleigh Fellow, emphasizes rewards and incentives for positive and compliant behavior, rather than merely sanctions for negative or noncompliant behavior.

It includes opportunities for young people to exercise decision-making skills and enlists them as partners in designing their own pathways to successful completion of probation, rather than prolonging it with unattainable or unrealistic behavioral expectations. Not only is this approach more aligned with the original purposes of our juvenile justice system, there is also growing evidence that it is more effective than overly punitive approaches to juvenile probation.

In Pierce County (Tacoma), Washington, the juvenile probation department instituted what they call their opportunity-based probation program, an incentive-based system that rewards probationers for meeting goals. Using a point system, the program provides young people with an opportunity to accumulate points, earn prizes and ultimately receive recognition at a graduation ceremony. Incentives offered to youth in the program include YMCA memberships, internships and the chance to have their probation supervision terminated early.

In his upcoming monograph, Bob Schwartz draws lessons from Pierce County and other jurisdictions, outlining several principles for reforming juvenile probation to comport with new adolescent brain science while still holding youth accountable. These include an abandonment of boilerplate conditions, a recognition of youth as individuals and an avoidance of harm to young people under supervision by not setting them up for failure with impractical restrictions.

Ultimately, jurisdictions must grapple not only with ways to revamp the processes in their juvenile probation departments, but also with how to change a way of thinking and a culture that may be more closely aligned with law enforcement than with a supportive social services model. The 21st-century juvenile probation department should be modeled on 21st-century research, which tells us that kids on probation can be held accountable, and can succeed, if we create expectations and goals that are realistic, achievable and developmentally appropriate.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

Los Angeles Supervisors to Vote on Comprehensive, Countywide Youth Diversion Program


LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County Supervisors are scheduled to vote today on a motion determining whether or not they will give the go-ahead to a comprehensive plan for a countywide youth diversion program designed to redirect the trajectories of thousands of LA youth who would otherwise be headed for the juvenile justice system.

A committee established this year wrote a detailed, highly researched report on youth diversion strategy, with the goal of “minimizing youth contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system.”

The report, “A Roadmap for Advancing Youth Diversion in LA County,” outlines a three-phase strategy that, according to one of its authors, could have the first stage of the proposed new diversion program up and running within 18 months — or even less.

If fully implemented, the roadmap has the potential to make Los Angeles County, which has the largest juvenile justice system in the U.S., one of the nation’s “most forward thinking counties” in improving the wellbeing of kids who might otherwise struggle with “the lifelong consequences of justice system involvement,” the report said.

Although there is a great deal of variation in diversion programming nationwide, a wide array of research has established that involvement with the justice system produces long-lasting collateral damage for young people.

Justice contacts such as arrest, probation supervision and stays in juvenile lockups are not only stigmatizing but interrupt the young person’s positive development and, lead to an increased risk for dropping out of high school, along with additional childhood trauma. Even one justice system contact reportedly greatly hikes the risk of further justice system contact.

This kite string of consequences too often follows kids into adulthood, affecting one’s ability to earn, leading to increased family disruption and a markedly increased risk of adult incarceration.

About 11,000 youth arrests were reported throughout Los Angeles County in 2015, the report said, “including status offenses, misdemeanors, and low-level felonies,” which would have been legally eligible for diversion in lieu of arrest or citation, under the California Welfare and Institutions Code.

Los Angeles County has made progress in reducing the number of arrests and citations for kids in the last 12 years. According to Department of Justice statistics, the total number of youth arrests and citations plummeted from 56,286 arrests and citations in 2005 to 13,665 in 2015.

This is in part due to a general long-term drop in youth crime, which was helped when, through the passage of Senate Bill 81, the “Juvenile Justice Realignment Bill” signed into law in 2007 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state drastically reduced and reformed its scandal-plagued California Youth Authority (basically a prison system for youth), and directed that all but a very small percentage of law-breaking juveniles be kept in California’s counties instead of far away from home in the mostly cleaned-up state facilities.

But, as the report points out, the statistical change was also a product of a concerted effort by child advocates and others to reduce “youth involvement in the justice system” altogether, “through collaborative, data-driven efforts” to persuade county officials to treat low-level misbehaviors as a flag that a youth needs help, not a reason to call police.

LA County Probation is now working to close as many of its juvenile camps as is possible, and to turn those remaining camps and juvenile halls into therapeutic, research-guided, “trauma-informed” environments that help and heal, not punish. Campus Kilpatrick, which opened this past summer, is the flagship and pilot for the department’s new ethic.

Juvenile facilities are expensive and have notoriously poor statistical outcomes. For instance, the cost per youth per year in an LA County juvenile probation camp is estimated at more than $247,000, with a recidivism rate (as defined by rearrest within one year) of approximately 33 percent.

In contrast, there are successful community-based organizations such as Centinela Youth Services, which has partnered since 2013 with the Los Angeles Police Department on a restorative justice diversion program that keeps youth who qualify out of the juvenile system if they break the law. This Juvenile Arrest Diversion Program, or JADP, costs an average of $4,000 or less per youth, with a recidivism rate of 8 to 11 percent.

Another urgent reason for the new program to be voted on today, according to juvenile advocates, is the matter of racial disparities.

Even as juvenile arrests declined throughout LA County, racial disparities have grown. Youth of color continue to be disproportionately impacted at all stages of the juvenile justice system, when controlling for offense, and represent 95 percent of youth in the county’s probation camps and juvenile halls.

Early in the process, the  ad-hoc Youth Diversion Subcommittee, supported by consultants from the nonprofit research center Impact Justice, set out five basic goals for the new plan:

  1. Increasing and improving collaboration between law enforcement, community-based organizations and other youth-serving agencies;
  2. Reducing the overall number of youth arrests, referrals to probation and petitions filed;
  3. Reducing racial and ethnic disparities in youth arrests, referrals to probation and petitions filed;
  4. Increasing the number of youth who are connected to services that address their underlying needs without acquiring an arrest or criminal record;
  5. Improving health, academic, economic and other outcomes for youth.

This story was written for WitnessLA.

How the U.S. Can and Should Greatly Reduce Mass Probation

As America grapples with its overreliance on incarceration and advocates call for the end of mass incarceration, we must also focus on reducing all criminal justice involvement, including probation. By far the largest segment of the criminal justice system in America is probation. There are more than seven million people in the country under the control of the criminal justice system. More than half, just under four million, are not in prison but under the supervision of probation.

Although probation is technically an alternative to incarceration, most people on probation have spent time in custody prior to being released onto probation supervision and many more end up incarcerated for technical violations of probation. And the growth of probation has even outpaced the enormous increase in the prison population.

In 1980, just over 800,000 people were on probation — today there are 4 million. There are nearly twice as many people on probation in the United States than incarcerated. And while we spend $80 billion per year to lock people up, we spend more than $300 billion to operate the entire criminal justice system.

For youth, numerous studies have revealed that system involvement in and of itself is harmful and leads to worse outcomes. A large study conducted by Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle in 2013 concluded that youth involvement in the juvenile justice system resulted in “large decreases in the likelihood of high school completion and large increases in the likelihood of adult incarceration.”

National Public Radio produced a detailed report on how “Probation Can Be More Challenging than Detention.”

A few jurisdictions have significantly reduced probation rolls, which has actually resulted in decreases in crime and saved resources. Los Angeles County Probation went from a high of approximately 23,000 youth on probation to 8,000 today. New York City reduced the number of people on probation from 68,000 in 1996 to 21,379 in 2014, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Even with recent reforms, far too often probation remains a game of “trail ’em, nail ’em, jail ’em.” Frivolous violations often result in unnecessary detention. And young people can be kept on probation for many years. In many jurisdictions, a young person can be placed on probation for something as minor as petty theft at age 13 and serve five years on probation, going in and out of detention for technical violations of onerous probation conditions.

The golden rule for juvenile justice is that less is better. Limited, focused services on youth assessed as high risk with a positive youth development approach is the best use of probation resources.


Here are a number of measures local probation departments can implement to responsibly reduce their over-reliance on correctional supervision:

  • Do not actively engage or supervise any youth assessed as low risk: Youth assessed as low risk are especially harmed by system involvement. Studies have found that doing nothing with a low-risk youth may actually result in better outcomes on average than including youth in the juvenile justice system.
  • Reduce the length of time youth spend on probation to no more than 12 months: Placing youth on probation for long periods is ineffective, inefficient and detrimental. And keeping youth on probation for long periods contributes to higher caseloads, which tax probation officers and can distract them from giving appropriate attention to higher-risk youth.
  • Do not send any youth to correctional facilities or out-of-home placement unless they are assessed as high risk, and do not keep most youth in placements longer than six months: Jurisdictions should only use out-of-home placement if a youth has been assessed as high risk and is in need of treatment services that only a residential setting can provide. Most so-called “placements” are private, large congregate care facilities.
  • Implement a policy or response grid that provides graduated sanctions and rewards for youth on probation that reduces the filing of violations.
  • Only detain youth brought to juvenile detention centers who score high on the risk assessment instrument.
  • Develop and offer a robust array of detention alternative programs: The probation department and the courts should have an ample, effective continuum of alternatives available so that detention is only used as a last resort.

These responsible, common-sense measures can effectively reduce youth probation populations. Implementing these reforms would result in more efficient probation operations and better outcomes for youth.

David Muhammad is the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. He is the former chief probation officer of Alameda County in California and the former deputy commission of probation in New York City.

LA County Puts Thousands of Kids on ‘Voluntary’ Probation for Merely Struggling With School

LOS ANGELES — Marbella Munoz was a foster child for most of her life. As is true for many foster children bounced through multiple placements, she was frequently forced to change schools. Despite the repeated changes, Munoz said she managed to keep up her grades. When she was 17, school administrators told her she had been referred to a program called “school-based supervision.” The “supervision” was not provided by a school guidance counselor or a teacher but by a juvenile probation officer.

Munoz didn’t understand. “Although I was an ‘A’ student, I was referred to a probation officer at my high school who told me I would have to be on their caseload because I was changing schools too much,” Munoz said.

The girl explained to the officer that the transfers were outside her control. “But I was told I had no option,” she said.

Upset that she was on what appeared to be juvenile probation, although she’d done nothing against the law, Munoz at first refused to report to her assigned deputy probation officer. Then she dropped out of high school altogether. (She now attends the Youth Justice Coalition’s FREE L.A. High School.)

Munoz’ story comes from a new report, titled “WIC 236: ‘Pre-Probation’ Supervision of Youth of Color With No Prior Court or Probation Involvement,” that examines and analyzes a controversial youth crime prevention strategy run by the Los Angeles County Probation Department, the nation’s largest juvenile probation system.

The program, known unofficially as “voluntary probation,” assigns children 10 to 17 considered by the county to be “at risk” to a professional probation officer, with their parent or guardian’s permission.

Like Munoz, the kids referred to voluntary probation have broken no laws and have no history of court or probation system contact.

Patricia Soung

The report — authored by Patricia Soung, senior staff attorney for the Children's Defense Fund-California; Kim McGill, organizer for the Youth Justice Coalition; Josh Green, staff attorney of the Urban Peace Institute, and Bikila Ochoa, policy director for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition — echoes concerns expressed by youth advocates and, more recently, by LA County’s probation commissioners at several meetings this year.

So, should the LA County Probation Department be putting kids who have never been in the justice system into a program that resembles court-ordered probation, without the court order?

This report suggests the answer is a resounding NO.

‘Voluntary participation’?

Jocelyn Mateo, Munoz’s classmate at her alternative high school, had also been referred to a probation officer although as far as she knew she’d done nothing wrong.

For more information about RACIAL AND ETHNIC FAIRNESS, go to JJIE Resource Hub | RACIAL AND ETHNIC FAIRNESS

“On my first day in the tenth grade at my new continuation school,” Mateo said, “I was pulled out of class and brought to the probation officer’s (PO) office.” Mateo was frightened that something had happened to her family “because there was no other reason I should be seeing a PO,” she said. She had never been arrested, never gone to court. “I asked the PO what had happened, and he told me that my name was on some list, so I had to see him. I asked him why my name was on the list and he refused to tell me.”

When she got home that afternoon, Mateo told her mother about her disturbing encounter. “My mom knew nothing about the PO and didn’t understand why I had to see one,” she said. “It made me feel like I had been labeled a monster child, a future criminal. I felt like the school, the PO, was just waiting for me to mess up. I felt like I was being set up for failure.”

Within days, Mateo, like Munoz, dropped out of school.

The pool of Los Angeles County youngsters who wind up in voluntary probation are called “236 youth,” in reference to the LA Welfare and Institutions (WIC) Code 236, which permits contact by county probation departments with at-risk youth, despite the lack of a court order.

LA County Probation defines at-risk youth primarily as those who live in 85 communities that are labeled the “most crime-affected” neighborhoods. A youth is also defined as at risk if he or she demonstrates two or more problems in the following areas: “family dysfunction (problems of parental monitoring of child behavior or high conflict between youth and parent), school problems (truancy, misbehavior or poor academic performance), and delinquent behavior (gang involvement, substance abuse or involvement in fights),” according to the report.

Once youth are labeled at risk, they can be referred to probation for non-court-ordered supervision, as long as they have no prior probation involvement, and as long as they participate voluntarily.

But, as the cases of Marbella Munoz and Jocelyn Mateo suggest, “voluntary participation” may be very loosely defined.

According to internal LA County Probation documents, the purpose of the program, which is in 103 LA County high schools, and 38 middle schools, is to provide services “designed to prevent at risk youth from becoming involved in juvenile delinquency and having law enforcement contact.”

Which kids are sent to voluntary probation, why?

Contrary to the document’s stated reasons for intervention, more than 85 percent of youth in the program were not referred because of traditional warning signs such as aggressive behavior or a history of discipline problems, the report found. Instead, it was due to school-related issues such as low motivation in classwork, poor attendance, a drop in grades or a related behavior issue having to do with school or school performance. This is concerning, the five authors noted, considering statistics that show 87 percent of youth in LA County’s juvenile justice system have a learning disability.

Only 5 percent of kids were referred for more risky behaviors such as substance abuse, problems with anger or parental conflicts.

In 2016, none of the 236 youth were referred to school-based supervision for gang involvement or fighting, although 18.3 percent of the services reportedly offered to them were labeled gang intervention, the report shows.

Moreover, students who are referred are disproportionately minority youth. In 2015, according to the report, 13.1 percent of LA high school students in voluntary probation were black — nearly twice the 7.4 percent of black kids in LA County as a whole. The ratios were similar when looking at middle school students.

Interestingly, the overall numbers of young people under formal supervision of the LA County Probation Department have taken a steep dive in the last 10 years. Yet, as of fiscal year 2013/2014, for the first time youth on voluntary probation outnumbered those mandated to be on probation. By FY 2015/2016, the number of at-risk youth in voluntary probation was more than double that of those formally on probation, at 4,752 and 1,990 respectively.

Considering the steady decline in juvenile crime, along with increased evidence that therapeutic and community-based programs are far more effective than programs that involve law enforcement, it is difficult not to ask why the number of youth who are unofficially supervised by the largest probation department in the nation is increasing.

Terri McDonald

This system is one of a long list of problems that LA County Probation Chief Terri McDonald inherited in January from the previous administration and is now feeling increasing pressure to fix.

McDonald and her second-in-command for juveniles, Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell, said at a March meeting with the LA Probation Commission that the program was under review in the hopes of improving its work with at-risk youth.

Bulk of funding goes to salaries, benefits

California’s legislature began setting aside millions of dollars a year for youth struggling with delinquency under the state Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA), passed in 2000.

The approximately $31 million that LA County receives yearly from JJCPA is specifically designated for local programs aimed at keeping kids who have tangled with the juvenile justice system from returning, and to help kids at risk of winding up in the system from entering it in the first place.

But when it comes to what LA County has spent of those millions on WIC 236 kids, the report found the largest chunk is not being allocated for juvenile programing that has been proven to produce measurably positive outcomes for at-risk youth. The biggest slice of the pie — 90 percent — helped pay salaries and benefits for the county’s school-based juvenile probation officers from 2012 through 2015. During that same time, only 1.2 to 1.8 percent of the money earmarked for voluntary probation went to community-based organizations, which have proven methods of helping kids in concrete ways with their challenges.

Under the regulations governing the fund, only about .5 percent of the JJCPA dollars is supposed to be spent on administrative costs such as salaries for probation personnel.

Similarly uneven spending percentages held true for fiscal year 2012/2013 and 2013/2014.

In dollars and cents, this meant that $6,986,194 was spent on probation salaries for FY 2014/2015 and only $134,329 was left over to actually provide services to kids.

Probation had a different set of calculations in a spring 2017 report, which computed the overall cost of probation services for WIC 236 youth as $11,192,960 for 7,560 youth, which meant a cost per kid per annum of $1,480.55. Out of that per capita dollar figure, the cost for staff alone was about $1,017 per year — or 69 percent of the whole.

Whichever system of calculations one uses, it is clear that the lion’s share of the money budgeted to help kids on voluntary probation is not going to programming for the kids themselves, but to pay the officers to whom they are assigned.

What do kids on voluntary probation receive?

So what do the kids on voluntary probation get for the money spent on them?

LA County’s Probation Commission, an advisory body that officially monitors the probation department, asked for answers to that question at their March 9 meeting.

Probation department representatives gave the commissioners a report that covered the broad strokes of how the program works, but not which program providers work with the 236 students, or specifically what services those kids are getting.

The biggest category of services listed in both the WIC 236 report and county-generated reports is “tutoring.”

In a 2016 snapshot report, 30.8 percent of the voluntary probation kids were getting tutoring, which the report’s authors saw as a red flag. “Typically,” they wrote, “probation officers have neither the training nor expertise ... to effectively work with youth struggling with academic or behavioral issues.”

Their next conclusion was even harsher: “[Probation’s] expansion into youth development and education work also reflects a broad dismissal, and perhaps even distrust of, people specially trained to do that work.”

The report noted studies like a 2009 20-year study by University of Montreal and University of Genoa researchers, and a 2014 University of California, Irvine dissertation, among several others, suggesting that juvenile probation, and even lighter-weight contact with the juvenile justice system, leads to much higher odds that a kid will have another brush with the law than there is for similarly situated kids with similar behavior, who have no system involvement.

How does county know if program is working?

Near the end of the WIC 236 report, the authors ask some pressing questions: Does this program work? Does it benefit the kids involved? What kind of outcomes are measured to determine if this method of voluntary probation has a positive effect on the kids involved?

Diwaine Smith, another youth quoted in the report, had a bleak perspective.

Smith is now a community leader with the Youth Justice Coalition, and a co-founder of Long Beach’s Men Making a Change program. But in high school he was on formal probation, which he said gave him an informed perspective on the kids on nonformal probation.

He described a “police bungalow” on his high school campus that also contained the school’s probation office.

“Since I was on formal probation, every day during my 45-minute lunch break, I had to walk to the police building, sign my name on a sign-in sheet and leave,” Smith said. “Some days I saw my probation officer as I signed my name, some days I saw a police officer instead. We didn’t talk. I just signed my name and left.”

During those daily trips to the police building, Smith said he noticed students there “who had never been in trouble before, who weren’t on probation.” When he asked what the non-in-trouble kids were doing in the police bungalow, he was told they too had to check in and sign their names.

“Making these kids report to the police office sent a wrong message to them, and to the rest of the students who saw them go there every day,” Smith said. “It sent a message that they could go to jail.” It would have been better, he concluded, “to have them see teachers or therapists who knew them, could maybe see changes in their behavior and do more to help them.”

On the data-driven side of the question, the RAND Corporation has been assessing outcomes for the program since approximately 2001. But according to the report, with a few exceptions, all RAND does is measure any improvement or backsliding in what is known in the world of the Board of State and Community Corrections as the “Big 6” outcomes, namely 1) arrest rate; 2) incarceration rate; 3) probation violation rate; 4) probation completion rate; 5) restitution completion rate, and; 6) community service completion rate.

Since, by definition, the 236 kids haven’t been arrested, incarcerated, put on formal probation and/or been sentenced to do community service or to pay restitution, this kind of measurement is “inapplicable,” the report states.

And in addition to being “meaningless data points,” the report’s authors write, “they also reveal a criminalizing frame for youth who have had no system contact and who have almost entirely been referred for school-based needs.”

At the same time, other more relevant measurements of progress, such as “improved educational attainment, increased pro-social skills, improved relationships and connection to positive peers, family and community,” are simply not collected.

Probation spokesperson Kerri Webb said the evaluation side of the equation will soon be changing. “We’ve contracted with RDA [Resource Development Associates] to evaluate all of our JJCPA-funded programs, and 236 is funded in part with those funds,” she said. “They will report findings to us.” Webb also said the department is “evaluating the entire program and that also includes salaries.”

Cyn Yamashiro

Cyn Yamashiro, the directing attorney for the Independent Juvenile Defender Office of Los Angeles County, and also a member of the probation commission, said that, in the last few months, the voluntary probation program has raised a lot of concerns among the commissioners.

“I don’t think that anyone could make a coherent argument,” he said, “that if some competent adult out in the field learns that a kid is engaging in risky behavior, if there are resources available, the adult should connect that kid or his family with any resources that can help him navigate whatever challenges he’s facing. There’s no disputing that.”

The question, according to Yamashiro, is “whether or not the [probation] department is the entity that should be doing it. In a landscape of scarce resources, is it the most fiscally effective policy,” or humanly effective, “for probation — which is law enforcement — to be engaging in that type of outreach.

“In my opinion,” he said, “the answer is no to both questions.

“All the data shows that interaction with the juvenile justice can be counterproductive, and that the longer that they’re involved the harder it is to get them out.”

When compared to “other kinds of interventions in the community that don’t involve law enforcement,” the programs without law enforcement are more effective, he said.

The good news, according to Yamashiro, is that “the powers that be are recognizing this. [Chief] McDonald and [Chief Deputy Probation Officer] Mitchell are both smart people. They understand the issue, and after hearing their responses at our meeting, I have the feeling they intend to move this in the right direction.”

This story is part of a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and is the product of a collaboration between the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and WitnessLA.

This story has been updated.

Confusion Over Certificate Program Denies Eligible Parolees the Right to Vote in NY

NEW YORK  Diana Ortiz remembers breaking into a huge smile the minute she saw her name on the voting roster. For many voters, the day was almost routine. But for Ortiz, who was convicted of murder when she was 18, the day carried a special significance. She was 45 years old and voting for the first time after spending more than 20 years in prison.

“I missed getting to vote for Obama,” said Ortiz, referring to Barack Obama’s 2008 election with a hint of remorse. “But I was just thrilled I was able to finally vote.”

IJJIE New York Metro Bureau logon New York, where 16- and 17-year-olds are automatically charged as adults, anyone convicted of a felony loses their right to vote while incarcerated. Many formerly incarcerated individuals — and even some parole officers and election officials — think that right is lost until those individuals have completed their parole. Even the New York State Voter Registration Form indicates one must not be in prison or on parole for a felony conviction in order to register.

But an investigation reveals a confusing and little-known process that allows New York parolees, many of whom have their first contact with the criminal justice system in their teens, to get certificates that will restore their right to vote.

Most often used to help obtain jobs and housing, Certificates of Good Standing and Certificates of Relief from Disability are issued to formerly incarcerated individuals by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s (DOCCS) Certificate Review Unit. Applicants for a certificate must complete a seven-page notarized application. For parolees who are approved, certificates demonstrate they have been rehabilitated and their crimes should no longer be held against them.

The problem is few parolees are told how to get these certificates, or even that they exist. Some parolees have to apply for them, while others have certificates issued automatically by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision upon their release. Many who have been issued certificates at the time of release are never told how to use them and some who are granted certificates are never notified.

As far as she knows, Ortiz, who had been incarcerated for all her adult life until her release from prison in 2006, was never issued a certificate. She didn’t even try to vote until she was finished with parole.

But now Ortiz wonders if she may have been eligible to vote for Obama all along.

Community advocates and criminal justice reformers have long claimed New York’s voter disenfranchisement policy has roots in racist attempts to restrict black and Latino voting rights.

Joseph “Jazz” Hayden served nine years for a manslaughter conviction and was released on parole in 1997. He is now an advocate for ex-offenders. Voter disenfranchisement has a disproportional impact on black and Latino communities, he says. In 2000, he sued then-Gov. George Pataki and Carol Berman, then chairperson of the New York State Board of Elections.

“We need to roll back felon disenfranchisement and eliminate it all together,” said Joseph Hayden, an advocate for ex-offenders. But until we do, we need to make it possible to return the right to vote as soon as they’re released from prison.”
“While they’re out on parole, they’re paying taxes, which flies in the face of the founding fathers’ concern about no taxation without representation,” said Joseph Hayden, an advocate for ex-offenders. “They’re taking care of families, living in communities — they should have the right to vote.”

In the suit Hayden — and other black and Latino plaintiffs who later joined him — alleged that the loss of the right to vote is a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1964. They pointed to data showing blacks and Latinos are more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts and are more likely to receive harsher sentences.

In 2006, the Southern District Court in New York ruled against Hayden, saying restoring voting rights for those incarcerated or on parole was not what Congress intended when passing the Voting Rights Act.

Circuit Judge Sonya Sotomayor, a Bronx native and now U.S. Supreme Court justice, was among five who dissented, writing that the Voting Rights Act “subjects felony disenfranchisement and all other voting qualifications to its coverage.”

Screen grab of Sotomayor's dissent.
Screen grab of Sotomayor's dissent.

“At the core of this is racism. It’s as simple as that. This is a way to curtail a population and curtail their participation – and it’s been effective,” Hayden said.

“We need to roll back felon disenfranchisement and eliminate it altogether,” he added. “But until we do, we need to make it possible to return the right to vote as soon as they’re released from prison.”

According to a 2016 Sentencing Project report on voter disenfranchisement, nearly 6 million individuals in the United States are unable to vote due to felony convictions.

Across the United States, disenfranchisement laws vary widely by state. Maine and Vermont allow individuals to vote while incarcerated. Ten states — Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and Wyoming — permanently revoke an individual’s right to vote after a felony conviction.

[Related: Revoked and Restored: Anthony Brown’s Life on Parole]

On June 30, the Iowa Supreme Court refused to restore voting rights for individuals with felony convictions. But earlier this year, Maryland restored voting rights for those on probation or parole andVirginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights for individuals convicted of felonies who have completed their sentence, including probation and parole.

New York, Colorado, Connecticut and California prohibit those with felony convictions from voting while in prison or parole. In New York, voting rights are restored for parolees who obtain certificates.

According to the DOCCS, more than 89,000 New Yorkers are disenfranchised. About 53,000 of those are incarcerated and 36,000 are on parole.

The policy of preventing prisoners and parolees from voting adversely affects African-Americans more than other New Yorkers. According to data from the New York Civil Liberties Union, one out of every 24 African-Americans in New York is unable to vote, compared to one out of every 121 voters of all races.

The certificates indicate a “presumption of rehabilitation” and eliminate licensing restrictions that otherwise prevent parolees from obtaining social worker, real estate and other professional licenses, Heather Garretson said. She is an attorney and City University of New York scholar in residence.

Attorney and City University of New York scholar in residence Heather Garretson recently completed a study on certificate programs that focused on New York’s certificate programs.
Attorney and City University of New York scholar in residence Heather Garretson recently completed a study that focused on New York’s certificate programs.

Both certificates allow people to vote while on parole, something many don’t learn about until years after their parole has ended. It’s unknown how many of those now on parole are eligible to apply for each certificate.

When asked by JJIE for information related to the number of individuals eligible for certificates for the past 10 years, the Department of Corrections declined to comment.

While New York corrections policy says that those who have been convicted of only one felony should be issued a certificate of relief from disability upon release, corrections officials often don’t follow that policy, Garretson said.

“Some people come home with certificates, some don’t,” said Garretson, who recently published “Legislating Forgiveness,” a research paper on post-conviction certificate programs. There are facilities that routinely send people home with a certificate and the knowledge they need to know how to use it, but that’s the exception, not the norm, she said.

James Lloyd, 51, was released from Woodbourne Correctional Facility in September 2010 after serving five years for criminal possession of a controlled substance. Once released, he found out from Exodus Transitional Community, a Harlem organization that works with formerly incarcerated men and women, that he was eligible for a certificate of relief from disability. He was issued a certificate of relief from disability in June 2011.

James Lloyd said he didn’t know he could have voted with his certificate. “It opened Lloyd said he didn’t know he could have voted with his certificate. “It opened up some doors as far as employment, because it’s supposed to hide the fact that I have that felony,” Lloyd said.
James Lloyd said he didn’t know he could have voted with his certificate. “It opened up some doors as far as employment, because it’s supposed to hide the fact that I have that felony,” he said.

Like Ortiz, Lloyd later learned he could have used the certificate to vote.

“A lot of parole officers, they don’t really tell you that,” Lloyd said. “It’s like picking teeth to get them to say certain things you can use a certificate of relief for. That needs to be out there because there’s a lot of brothers and sisters that don’t know.”

Lloyd was released from parole before the 2012 presidential election and registered to vote.

He said he’ll never forget walking into PS 112 in Astoria, Queens, his wife and 18-year-old daughter, Jamese, by his side.

Lloyd said going to the polls with his daughter was one of the best days of his life, and that voting for the first black president made it that much sweeter.

“I voted for Obama,” he said proudly. “And I know there were a lot of us voting for Obama, but I feel like my one little vote helped him get there.”

Garretson wonders how many more individuals on parole could have voted in 2012 and more importantly, how many are eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential election but won’t even try because they don’t know their right to vote can be restored.

Ramon Caba, now the program manager at Exodus Transitional Community, was recently released from parole and plans to vote in the presidential elections.

“DOCCS is not doing the best job disseminating this information — even senior counselors and parole officers don’t know this is a priority,” said Caba.

Garretson feels that there’s a general apathy throughout the corrections system when it comes to sharing information with parolees that will allow them to regain their rights.

“They did pass the law in 2011 that said if you’re eligible for a certificate of relief from disability, and you make your board, you should go home with one,” she said. But, she added, safeguards need to be in place to ensure that that happens in every case at all facilities.

The New York State Board of Elections, the agency responsible for administration and enforcement, doesn’t have a record of who has been issued certificates.

“I am not aware of any database that we have access to which provides information on CRD’s [certificates of relief from disability],” said spokesman John Conklin via email.
“We receive information from Department of Corrections on convicted felons, but nothing else. The statute does not provide for any database like that, nor am I aware of any that exist,” he added.

When the New York Department of Community Corrections and Supervision was asked for the number of certificates applied for and granted between 2005 and 2016, JJIE was instructed to file a Freedom of Information Law request.

In response, Assistant Counsel David Harvey wrote, “Please be advised, the certificates are located in individual inmate and parolee files. As such, the records are not maintained in a manner that allows for practical retrieval.”

Screen grab of the FOIL response.

Election law says the state election board is responsible for disseminating the names of those convicted of felonies to local election boards, who are responsible for registering voters in their area. It’s unclear how local election boards check to see who is and who isn’t eligible to vote.

JJIE asked the New York City Board of Elections to explain the process it uses to confirm voter eligibility, but it did not respond.

One parolee, who spoke to JJIE on the condition of anonymity, says election boards don’t always check. He was released in 2013 after serving 22 years for murder and is still on parole. He says he easily registered to vote when he applied for a driver’s license shortly after being released.

“Technically they tell you you can’t vote, but let me tell you, there’s nobody checking,” he said.

It’s not just state agencies who don’t know who does and who doesn’t have a certificate. In some cases, even those who have been awarded certificates don’t know.

Lisa Winters, 52, served 18 months in Edgecombe Correctional Facility for grand larceny and forgery. She said she knew nothing about certificates when she came home on November 21, 2014.

Lisa Winters is ecstatic after voting in the New York presidential primary on April 19, 2016. “It feels great and you know, it’s such a big deal to exercise your voting rights,” she said.
Lisa Winters was ecstatic after voting in the New York presidential primary on April 19. “I thought that I wasn’t allowed to vote until I was off parole,” she said, adding that she’s always been very active in her community and regularly campaigns for local, state and national candidates.

She now works for Exodus Transitional Community, where she learned the importance of having a certificate. One day she called the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision on behalf of a client and decided to inquire about applying for a certificate herself.

“They said I had been issued a certificate of relief from disabilities on November 24, 2014. And I never knew,” said Winters, who said she always voted before her incarceration, but didn’t think she was eligible while on parole. “I said, ‘are you kidding?’ Where did you mail it to? I haven’t moved in 17 years.”

Ultimately, Garretson said, improving reentry is good for all involved. “It’s cheaper, it’s more humane and it’s more socially responsible to be like ‘when you come home, there are ways to exist and be successful.’” she said.

More related articles:

Troubled No More, Youths Bring Stories of Their Resilience to Probation Professionals

Case Now Strong for Ending Probation’s Place As Default Disposition in Juvenile Justice

Virginia Makes It Easier for Former Felons to Vote

Revoked and Restored: Anthony Brown’s Life on Parole

New York — Anthony Brown has spent 15 of his 31 years in prison or on parole. He was first incarcerated in 2001, when he was 16 years old, for selling drugs and has since been incarcerated four times for drug crimes and parole violations. Brown was most recently released from prison in February 2015, and says he is going to get off of parole for good so he can be involved in his soon-to-be born child’s life.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logo“It’s the longest I’ve ever been out: a year,” Brown said. “I was just tired of doing whatever they told me I needed to do.”

The parole system is designed to help reintegrate people who have spent time in prison into day-to-day life. Brown’s time in the parole system has been much like the process of being "revoked and restored," which is a violation used by parole officers to add time to a parolee’s term when they fail to report for a period of time. Brown has been under state supervision non-stop since he was 16, partly because he has never served his full sentence without failing to follow the rules of parole. Those violations have led to added time on parole or being sent back to prison for months or years.

For many parolees like Brown, the difference between staying out of and returning to prison often depends on family support, employment and a helpful parole officer (PO) as much as individual willpower, according to former parole officer Ruben Hernandez.

[Related: Case Now Strong for Ending Probation’s Place As Default Disposition in Juvenile Justice]

Every other Wednesday, Brown wakes up in his Fordham, New York, apartment before 6 a.m. to catch the Bx15 bus for Port Morris in the South Bronx. It takes an hour to get to the parole office on Alexander Avenue, where he sometimes has to wait for up to eight hours to check in with his parole officer.

Officer Farrar oversees Brown’s parole now. He applies stricter discipline than Brown had with his previous parole officer. Brown is regularly tested for drugs and alcohol, and he is required to attend therapy.



Brown, who recently started a job at a telemarketing company in Queens, says being on parole can be difficult when it comes to his personal life.In addition to his check in at the parole office, he says he also has frequent home visits by a parole officer. Those visits will now include his work as well.

Parole rules across the country prove difficult to follow for parolee’s with drug offences like Brown. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that 40 percent of released drug offenders in 2010 were rearrested within 3 years of being released from prison.

Brown said his life of crime stems from the fact that he suffered physical and drug abuse as a child at the hands of his parents and foster parents. He said his father died when he was 3 years old, and he was left with his sister and mother, who was a drug addict. Shortly after being adopted when he was 12 years old, Brown decided to run away from his new, religiously devout mother.

He became homeless and began selling heroin as a way to support himself. He was first arrested and sentenced to three years in prison in 2001, when he was just 16 years old. That initial decision to deal drugs shaped his life for the next decade and a half.

After being released from prison a year and a half ago, Brown says he decided to change his life. His first step is starting a family with his girlfriend and new baby. Becoming a father made him realize he needed a new job that wouldn’t end in a return to prison. He is working off hours, but he says it’s a start. In the future, Brown wants to become a mentor to kids who might be at risk of walking down the same path he did. Brown says he thinks he can help by offering advice and telling people how things worked out for him. For now, he says, his family and a strict PO are putting him on a positive path to achieving those new goals.

This story originally appeared in Forty Dollars and a Bus Ticket, a special report produced by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism's NYCity News Service.

More related articles:

Troubled No More, Youths Bring Stories of Their Resilience to Probation Professionals

Probation Camp Alternatives Work Better for Teens

Letting Go of What Doesn’t Work for Juvenile Probation, Embracing What Does

Troubled No More, Youths Bring Stories of Their Resilience to Probation Professionals

DeAngelo Cortijo delivered the keynote closing address at the first national symposium on probation system reform
DeAngelo Cortijo (right) delivered the keynote closing address at the first national symposium on probation system reform. Margaret Samuel also spoke before the symposium.

BOSTON — Twenty-two years seems like an awfully short time to already be talking about redemption. But the young man sitting on the velvet couch in the splendor of the Omni Parker House Hotel’s mezzanine is living proof that for someone who has survived the juvenile justice system in America, there is a fine line between ending your life and turning it around.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoDeAngelo Cortijo sat noiselessly mouthing the words of his speech — a dizzying childhood of crime and imprisonment and intermittent homelessness, surviving the streets and long stretches of solitary. It’s a hectic and fractured life the boyish-looking Cortijo has crammed into a 40-minute talk.

As he prepared to deliver the keynote closing address at the inaugural symposium on probation system reform in Boston in early April, reflecting on his life so far momentarily left him trembling.

About an hour before Cortijo took the podium, he considered his bookends of his young life: the near-suicide of his mother, which sent him to the brink of despair, to the flushing of drugs stuffed under his door in solitary, which sent him down the path of redemption. He broke down and wept.

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DeAngelo Cortijo

“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping tears from his face. “I still get a little emotional.”

Even though he was only 2 ½, he can still summon the details of seeing his mother on the brink of death; scampering into the kitchen to find her unconscious on the floor amid empty pill bottles.

“I just so vividly remember sitting in the back of their [Child Protective Services] white city car with city logo stamped on the side looking out the back of the window and seeing the stretcher, fearful as hell, hauling my mom from that house and into the ambulance and that feeling: I’ll never see her again,” he said.

hub_arrow_2-01It was that fundamental desire, a son’s longing to reunite with his mother, that led Cortijo to frequent acting out, which led him into the labyrinthine systems of foster care, probation and juvenile detention in California.

He told his story in the hope of inspiring the professionals to remember that their clients, with all their problems and posturing, are just kids at heart, no different than their own.

After days of statistics, and deep diving into data, of digging into the nuts and bolts of system reform and the latest in evidence-based practices, it was no accident that the symposium organizers ended the event not with an expert or academic but with the stories of young people who went through the juvenile justice system and came out the other side different people.

John Tuell
John Tuell is the executive director of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, which organized the symposium.

John Tuell, executive director of the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, which organized the symposium, said part of its mission was to challenge the professionals in attendance to improve the outcomes for the youth they serve. Thus, he felt it was crucial to turn the podium over to Cortijo and Margaret Samuel, two youths who had firsthand experience, good and bad, in the system and could speak about what they learned.

‘When delivered effectively, these voices inspire us both emotionally and logically to more diligently lead or direct positive change within our youth-serving systems,” Tuell said. “We wanted the audience to be enveloped by their accounts of pain, harm and negative experiences while simultaneously seeing the face of resilience, resolve and victory from these extraordinary young adults.”

From bowels of system to dedicated reformer

Cortijo said he didn’t know what the word resilient meant while he was on the inside doing stints in detention youth facilities up and down California in his teens.

“I didn’t know what the word meant but I knew that basic principle, I learned it and lived it inside. I applied it to my situation. I made that choice sitting in the cell. It wasn’t all peaches and cream. I had to work through a lot but I made a choice, and I stuck to it.”

But that knowledge took a while to acquire, and it was hard-earned, after countless fights and nights in solitary, bouncing from group homes to foster homes to housing projects and, finally, a string of juvenile detention facilities.

Cortijo spent years living by his wits on the streets of Oakland, losing and winning countless fistfights, stealing cars before he knew how to drive. In fact, he said, the only reason police officers pulled him over for one of his first arrests was because he was driving at night without his headlights on.

After that he was thrown into numerous youth homes and detention facilities he broke out of, all by the time he was a young teenager. All of it, the pain and the tears and the blood and the lonely nights in solitary, driven by one of the most basic of human needs: the love of a mother.

One of the lowest points in his ordeal, Cortijo said, was visiting day, no matter what youth facility he was in. It seemed like every other kid in the joint would get visits from his mother, or there would be calls, or thoughtful letters at mail call.

But not for him.

He would metabolize that disappointment into unadulterated rage, which would lead to another fight, another spell in solitary, letting the disappointment marinate into something darker.

Cortijo would coil with rage and resentment and look for an opportunity to unleash it on somebody. Often, he said, the mocking treatment of staff would be enough to set him off.

To Cortijo crime was never about getting free stuff or some twisted desire to hurt someone.

“It was to get attention, to get back to my mother. If I was getting picked up by police she’d come to me and that would be a reason for her to love me. I constantly thought that would happen, being that young.”

He thinks his mother visited him three times in the five years he was incarcerated. Every time someone else would receive a visit from their mother, or get a letter, it would “retrigger” his trauma, he said.

He would cycle through the same soul-crushing questions: I’m not different than them. Why can’t I have that same thing? Why can’t I get letters? Why can’t I get visits? Why can’t I have a family that loves me?

Replacing anger with hope

But that changed one day when he was in solitary in a youth facility in Stockton. Cortijo had reached the point in his young life when, like his mother, he had decided to end it. He was thrown into the hole after another fight borne of frustration, he said, and his thoughts took a dark turn.

“I was just thinking my life can’t get no worse and I just wanted it to all end,” he said.

A cousin who was serving time in the same facility had stuffed a plastic bag of marijuana underneath his door.

“The weed is in my hand,” he said. “It’s in my hand! And my mind just pivoted. I said, ‘You know what? Fuck this shit!’ And I threw it in the toilet and flushed it — and that stuff was valuable in there. That was it, that was when I started shifting the way I began thinking. I just literally shifted the way I was thinking.”

Cortijo said it wasn’t easy, but he stuck to this new way. No more fights. No more bad behavior. He was about to turn 18 and couldn’t act like a kid anymore. He said he developed a way to cope with his bouts of rage.

“I completely was able to mentally capture my anger when it happened and replace it with,” long pause, “and replace it with, like, hope. And the hope was this: ‘If I do good I can still get out before I’m 25, and I can still go to college and have a full life.’ That was my motivating drive.”

Edward P. Kelley, chief executive officer of the RFK Children's Action Corps. (left), talks to DeAngelo Cortijo.

When he’d feel the anger start to swell inside him, Cortijo would counsel himself.

“I’d be like, ‘Man, I want to go to college, I hate this place,’” he remembered. “Whatever I have to do to put myself in a situation to get out of here even if it means sitting here and not saying a word then I’ll do it.”

And he was provoked constantly, he said, but remained the calm center of his universe. Even when he was attacked, he said, he didn’t fight back.

“I’m done,” he resolved. “There’s nothing in it for me.”

Perhaps the only thing more stunning than Cortijo’s journey through the system is the life he has lived since he has been out. Since staring down death in the hole in Stockton, Cortijo said he never looked back. He went from wallowing in the bowels of the juvenile justice system to working to reform it in the committee rooms of Sacramento, the California state capital.

As soon as he got out, he volunteered at the National Center for Youth Law. He received a grant to help with prisoners looking for assistance writing appeals or sentence reduction. He created a spreadsheet on best practices of juvenile justice systems from across the country.

He lobbied the California legislature on two bills, one to limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and another to change the standards for psychotropic drug prescriptions for children in state custody. He testified as an expert witness in the statehouse. He worked for five months as a field representative. But he said he preferred working as an advocate than as a politician.

“Politics,” he said with a wry smile, “is not for me.”

Weathering life’s storms with the A-Team

It is hard to reconcile Margaret Samuel’s electric, infectious smile with her story of abuse, violence and juvenile detention. Like Cortijo, Margaret Samuel’s life was marked by trauma that sent her reeling into the juvenile justice system. In this case it was not the lack of love from a mother, but physical and sexual abuse and other incidents she euphemistically refers to as “unfortunate events” at the hands of her father that left her a broken person. It was a story she told after Cortijo spoke.

She was the only daughter of seven children. “Growing up I felt lonely, isolated and often had to fight to be heard. I grew up in a household with an abusive father, school and friends as an outlet of escape,” she said to a rapt audience. “Yet the instability at home caused me to have behavior issues at school.”

Those issues led to a physical fight at school that led to criminal charges, indefinite probation, time in a juvenile detention center and frequent appearances in court.

“I had probation violations from missing curfew, running away from home for weeks at a time,” she said. “I felt the court system was another entity which tried to control me and not help me.”

Samuel said her life was saved by a group of counselors, advocates and probation officers she described as her A-Team. It was an inside joke for all the people who helped her work through her trauma and turn her life around.

They, like all the probation professionals gathered in the ballroom, were there to “weather life’s storms,” she said. And she was grateful they were there for her. When she was sent to Foundations, a probation facility for girls in Fairfax, Virginia, she was able to see life differently, she said.

”When I wanted to give up they reminded me of the light at the end of the tunnel,” Samuel said. “I knew that I needed help. The safe environment allowed me to put down my mask and carefully tear down the brick walls that I spent years putting up. For the first time in my life I was in a space where I could learn about myself and grow. I saw the possibility of living a different life so I decided to work toward it.”

Now she is studying psychology at Northern Virginia Community College, working as an artist and making plans to build a therapeutic youth center in her home country of Sudan.

She joked that without the A-Team: “I don’t think I’d be the well-rounded, beautiful, intelligent, motivated, and did I say awesome, young woman that I am today.” She laughed and added: “All of you who helped young people weather the storm please give yourselves a round of applause.”

And they did.

After the symposium’s official end, both Cortijo and Samuel were not done speaking. As members of the hotel staff hurried around, hustling dishes back to the kitchen, they could be seen deep in conversation with professionals who wanted tips. Cortijo and Samuel were dispensing advice, and the adults were listening.

Case Now Strong for Ending Probation’s Place As Default Disposition in Juvenile Justice


Forty-plus years after sociologist Robert Martinson rocked the worlds of juvenile and criminal justice by declaring that “nothing works” in offender rehabilitation, Jens Ludwig and his colleagues at the Chicago Crime Lab have gone on a remarkable roll.

hub_arrow_2-01In a series of carefully controlled studies since 2012 testing a variety of strategies to prevent delinquency or reverse behavior problems of already adjudicated youth, Ludwig and his team have documented dramatic positive impacts on violent offending, other offending and the closely linked domain of academic success.

  • One study examined the impact of an inexpensive, light-touch intervention program called “Becoming A Man” (or BAM) on seventh- to 10th-graders in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. In BAM, trained counselors employ cognitive-behavioral techniques to teach groups of high-risk students to “stop, look, and listen” in emotionally charged situations where poor decisions can lead to severe consequences. Students assigned to BAM (plus an after-school sports program) had 44 percent fewer violent crime arrests during the program period and 38 percent fewer arrests for other offenses than a randomly assigned control group. The intervention, which also yielded long-term gains in academic achievement, cost only $1,100 per participant.
  • In a random assignment study with high-risk ninth- and 10th- graders in Chicago, some students were selected to participate in the same Becoming A Man program, others in BAM plus intensive math tutoring, while a control group received no special services. Again the results were remarkable. Students in either of the treatment groups (BAM, or BAM plus tutoring) proved 66 percent less likely to fail a class than control group youth. Also, they made dramatic gains in math achievement, had 25 percent fewer absences and showed behavioral improvements consistent with a 26 percent reduction in future violent crime arrests.
  • A third study tested the impact of a BAM-like cognitive-behavioral program inside the Cook County Temporary Detention Center, where facility administrators were seeking to improve the quality of care in the facility one unit at a time. From November 2009 to March 2011, youth were randomly assigned either to treatment-as-usual units or to units incorporating the CBT training along with increased educational requirements for staff and a new “token economy” to reward positive behavior. Youth in the reformed units returned to detention 21 percent less often following release, and they were 10 percent less likely to be involved serious disciplinary infractions while in the facility.

Standing on the shoulders of recent research documenting the effectiveness of other adolescent intervention models, these studies leave no doubt that our society has amassed a wealth of new practical knowledge on how to reduce delinquency. Combined with revolutionary advances in brain science and adolescent development research, the Chicago Crime Lab studies help to clarify the dimensions of a more targeted approach for combating delinquency and improving outcomes for high-risk youth generally.

If only our nation’s juvenile justice systems took proper notice.

Evidence against probation’s effectiveness

Think about it: Well over half of all youth adjudicated delinquent in U.S. juvenile courts each year are sentenced to probation. Even many youth referred to juvenile court but not adjudicated (24 percent in 2013) are placed on informal probation.

Yet there is virtually no evidence that probation as commonly practiced reduces the reoffending rates of youth. Quite the contrary. As I’ll detail below, what research exists on the impact of standard-issue probation suggests that, on balance, it does nothing, or next to nothing, to reduce offending. Nonetheless, probation has remained largely unchanged in recent decades, and it remains the disposition of choice for system-involved youth.

This arrangement may have been defensible in previous eras, when we lacked solid research to understand the dynamics of delinquency, the factors that propel adolescents toward lawbreaking and the characteristics of effective interventions. But that day has passed.

What should we do instead of probation? Well, there are lots of alternatives, and much more experimentation and learning to be done. But based on the Chicago Crime Lab studies and other research I suggest we begin with a pair of three-letter answers, BAM and YAP, plus two more options — citations and intensive tutoring — that lack acronyms but also make tons more sense than standard supervision for many or most youth currently enmeshed in probation.

Before talking about these alternatives, though, let me explain three reasons why probation’s central place in the juvenile justice system is so problematic.

  • The available evidence shows that probation doesn’t work.

In a 2008 review of research on probation (aka community supervision), a team of scholars led by James Bonta reported that, on average, probation was associated with just a 2 percent decrease in recidivism for both youth and adult offenders, and had no impact at all on violent offending. “On the whole,” the study authors reported, “community supervision does not appear to work very well.” Likewise, a 2012 article in the Journal of Crime and Justice reviewed the available research literature and declared that “the impact of community supervision is at best limited and at worst leaves clients more likely to recidivate.” And in 2013, a paper by Ed Latessa and his colleagues at the University of Cincinnati came to a similar conclusion: “traditional community supervision — both as an alternative to residential supervision (probation) and as a means to continue supervision after release from a correctional institution (parole) — is ineffective.”

Most recently, an updated evaluation of Ohio’s RECLAIM programs, published in 2014, found that low-risk youth referred to probation had “a 3 percent greater likelihood of reoffending compared to youth who participated in any other programs.” At every risk level, the RECLAIM study found, youth placed on probation experienced significantly higher reoffending rates than comparable youth whose cases were not processed in juvenile court and were instead placed in diversion programs.

  • New research into brain science and adolescent development makes clear that traditional probation is fundamentally ill-suited to the challenges of reversing behavior problems and fostering success among high-risk youth.

While probation practices vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, even officer to officer, the core of the juvenile probation model involves a judge imposing a list (often a long one) of rules and requirements the young person must follow, and then a probation officer keeping tabs on the young person and sometimes referring him or her to counseling or treatment services. Whenever youth formally sentenced to probation break these rules — skipping school, failing a drug test, falling behind on restitution payments, missing a required check-in with the probation officer — they are in violation of their probation and may be punished accordingly, up to and including incarceration in state or local correctional institutions. Indeed, a substantial share of youth committed to juvenile corrections facilities each year are sentenced not for committing new crimes but for violating probation rules.

Given what we know about delinquency and adolescent development, probation’s emphasis on surveillance and rule-following makes no sense. Here’s why.

Thanks to new brain imaging technologies developed over the past quarter-century, we now know that the human brain does not fully mature until age 25 or later. The last section of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for controlling impulses, weighing consequences and regulating emotions. Meanwhile, the part of the brain focused on sensation-seeking and risk taking (the limbic system) is unusually active during adolescence.

As a result, law-breaking and other risky behaviors are common, even normal, during adolescence. But in the vast majority of cases, youth grow out of their lawbreaking even without any intervention from the justice or mental health systems. What sense does it make, then, to impose additional rules on already troubled youth, heighten scrutiny of their behaviors and then punish them for entirely predictable transgressions when most would likely desist from delinquency on their own?

Increasingly, scholars have determined that the key difference distinguishing youth who desist from delinquency and those who become chronic offenders is “psychosocial maturity” — the abilities to control impulses, consider the implications of their actions, delay gratification and resist peer pressure — all of which enable the young person to assume adult roles in society (employment, marriage, parenting). As Temple University adolescence scholar Laurence Steinberg and two colleagues explained in a 2015 essay, “Just as immaturity is an important contributor to the emergence of much adolescent misbehavior, maturity is an important contributor to its cessation.”

Meanwhile, another powerful strand of recent research has found that chronic offending is tightly linked to extensive and wide-ranging exposure to trauma in childhood. And delinquency scholars have long recognized the close connection between academic failure and delinquency.

Yet, rather than concentrating first and foremost on helping court-involved young people accelerate their maturation, rather than address the traumas they have experienced or overcome their academic deficits, probation instead imposes additional rules and punishes those who — like most adolescents — are unable or unwilling to follow them.

    • Emerging “what works” research offers a valuable yardstick for determining which types of interventions effectively foster adolescent behavior change.

The juvenile justice field has also been blessed in recent decades with a wealth of new research on what works and doesn’t work in preventing and reversing delinquency. Using meta-analysis, a technique for aggregating the results of many studies to identify cross-cutting findings from an entire body of research, scholars have gleaned several clear lessons.

The first is that some types of interventions work much better than others with delinquent youth. Specifically, programs aimed at deterrence and discipline (Scared Straight, boot camps) tend to actually worsen recidivism. Programs geared toward surveillance (i.e., probation) tend to have little or no effect on recidivism. But therapeutic programs aimed at helping youth accelerate their psychosocial maturation consistently reduce recidivism rates — and by a considerable margin. These counseling and skill-building models include cognitive-behavioral therapy to help youth address anti-social attitudes and learn problem-solving and perspective-taking skills, as well as family counseling and mentoring by volunteers or youth workers in the community.

Second, correctional interventions work best when they target youth at high risk to reoffend. Mark Lipsey of Vanderbilt University has found that delinquency risk is the variable with “the largest relationship by far” with success in juvenile justice intervention programs, and that “larger effect sizes (greater recidivism reductions) [are] associated with higher risk juveniles.” The crucial corollary to this finding is that intervention programs targeting lower-risk youth are far less effective — and can even worsen outcomes.

A third lesson is that close relationships with caring and responsible adults are a key to adolescent behavior change. Canadian scholars Craig Dowden and Donald Andrews have identified relationship-building — the ability to foster open, warm and enthusiastic communication — as “arguably the most important” of the five “core correctional practices” that have consistently proven effective in improving recidivism outcomes.

How to implement reform

Taken together, the research leaves little doubt that continued heavy reliance on surveillance-oriented probation is a flawed strategy, and it is especially problematic when applied to lower-risk youth who are likely to desist from delinquency on their own.

How should the juvenile justice field correct this imbalance?

One option is to fundamentally reorient probation to do what works. This past week, I attended a probation system reform symposium organized by the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice. Led by former probation officer John Tuell, the probation reform unit at the RFK Center has developed a rigorous system review process for juvenile probation offices, and it has provided extensive assistance over the past decade to shepherd just over a dozen probation agencies through that process.

Results to date are encouraging. Through the RFK process, juvenile probation agencies are rethinking their mission, improving their screening and assessment processes, crafting new response grids, retraining their officers and expanding the range and quality of their intervention programs. At least in some cases, sites are shifting lower-risk youth away from probation supervision and into diversion programs. Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, for instance, has reduced its probation population by 48 percent since 2011, more than doubled the number of youth diverted from court and developed an array of evidence-based interventions to meet the needs of diverted youth without the stigma of court supervision.

Though some RFK sites are not as focused on reducing probation caseloads or increasing the use of diversion, Tuell described trimming the probation population as “one of the primary goals of system reform.”

“We need to make sure that kids who do not need to be involved do indeed stay out of the justice system,” Tuell added. “And at the same time we still need to be able to address the needs those young people are facing” through effective alternative responses and diversion programs.

However, the RFK Center’s reform model is time-consuming and labor-intensive.  The review process itself takes 10-12 months, followed by an implementation phase that can last a year or longer.  And like any ambitious system reform aiming to shift the culture of entrenched organizations, success depends heavily on motivated participation from administrators and line staff within the local probation agency. With more than 2,000 juvenile probation offices coast to coast, the RFK approach will be difficult to replicate effectively at scale.

That’s why I believe the first step in probation reform should be shrinkage. Many or most of the young people currently assigned to supervision (which, again, doesn’t reduce reoffending) should instead be steered toward interventions with proven power to lower their likelihood of reoffending — or diverted from the juvenile court system entirely and left to mature on their own.

At a minimum, courts should refrain from employing probation to supervise young people whose cases are diverted from court and those who are referred to court but never adjudicated. And even among youth who are adjudicated, formal probation should not be imposed on youth with limited prior offending and low risk to reoffend.

Instead of probation, young people should be steered to effective intervention programs like BAM that employ cognitive behavioral therapy delivered by skilled and personable counselors to help young people learn to resist peer pressure, control their impulses, and apply restraint and forethought in heated situations.

Or they should be assigned mentors in the community who offer coaching, encouragement and support to help youth avoid lapsing back into problematic behavior patterns. For 40 years, Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (or YAP) has been assigning trained advocates to work with court-involved youth as an alternative to incarceration. These advocates, who hail from the same communities as the youth they serve, form close trusting relationships with the youth and help the young people complete individualized service plans developed in partnership with their families.

A recent analysis found that 86 percent of participating youth in multiple YAP sites nationwide were not arrested while participating in the program, which typically lasts four months, and 93 percent were still living at home when the program completed. (Similar programs not affiliated with YAP operate in Maryland, and in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.)

Or, given the powerful impacts documented in Chicago, diverted youth should receive intensive math tutoring to help them bridge academic learning gaps that commonly frustrate youth and cause them to drop out of school, greatly exacerbating their risk for delinquency.

Finally, for those youth whose offenses are minor and who show limited risk for future offending, the juvenile court should avoid any action beyond a warning. Indeed, a recent meta-analysis by Canadian scholars Holly Wilson and Robert Hague found that diversion from court is more effective in reducing recidivism than the traditional justice system. Diversion was superior to court processing, whether diverted youth received only a caution or were referred to a counseling or intervention program. In fact, low-risk youth receiving only a caution fared better than those referred to a diversion intervention.

In recent years, Florida has steadily expanded the use of “civil citations” in lieu of arrest and court processing for first-time misdemeanor offenders. In 2014-15, nearly 12,000 young people received these citations.  State recidivism data show that only 4 percent of citation youth reoffended, as compared to 13 percent of youth placed in court-supervised diversion programs and 17 percent for youth placed on probation.

There are, of course, many probation officers, and even some whole probation agencies, who are doing their best to heed the research, divert youth whenever possible and provide the most promising, evidence-based care for youth with more serious offending behaviors who really do require supervision.
But for the hundreds of thousands of youth nationwide who are guilty of minor misbehavior typical for adolescence, the lesson is clear: When it comes to probation, less is more.

This story has been updated.

Georgia Teen Goes on Wild Crime Spree While Wearing GPS Monitoring Bracelet, Say Police

Despite wearing an ankle bracelet, a Henry County, Ga., teen allegedly went on a wild crime spree. The 16-year-old, now in police custody, is accused of two carjackings, the theft of a third car and armed robbery in the early morning hours of July 8.

The boy was finally tracked down by the LoJack device in the stolen Land Cruiser he was driving and not by the GPS monitoring device strapped to his ankle, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The ankle bracelet was for earlier armed robbery charges.

As JJIE reported last September, Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice has been using ankle monitors for years. According to Scheree Moore, the department’s director of communications, the ankle monitors are an alternative to incarceration meant to help the young person. Monitoring may be paired with in-home counseling or other wraparound services.

But in 2009, the AJC found significant delays in responding to alerts from the monitors. The ankle bracelets are tracked by independent contractors who may not keep tabs on them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the event a juvenile violates their probation it may take several hours for a judge to issue a warrant for their arrest.

According to Jeff Fox of the Henry County Juvenile Court’s Probation Department, response time varies.

“Some reports don’t come through until the following day,” Fox said. “There are other reports that happen immediately.”
Fox said Henry County uses both a GPS monitoring bracelet, which tracks the child’s location, and a simple alert bracelet, which will only let authorities know the child left their home.

“There’s different kinds of restrictions,” he said, and it’s based on the child’s history and likelihood to run, as well as funds available to the court for monitoring.

California Teens Convicted of Rape go Home on Probation

handcuff stock photoThree teens convicted of raping a 13-year-old classmate were sentenced to probation by California juvenile officials after serving 120 days behind bars. The charges, forcible rape in concert and lewd acts with a child under 14 – both felony accounts – carried a maximum punishment of nine years in juvenile detention, The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif. reported.

Some members of the community said probation was too lenient of a punishment for something as serious as rape, but youth law experts contended the juvenile justice system was designed to give offenders the opportunity to reform.

Juveniles convicted of rape in California do not have to register as sex offenders, said The Press-Enterprise.