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.

Navigating the Path to a Successful Career: Providing Support for Trauma-Exposed Youth i

Juvenile Law Center

Youth placed in juvenile justice institutions face a fundamental obstacle in their career pathway: They have been removed from their communities and lack access to the full array of educational and job opportunities available to their peers. Accordingly, the best long-term solution to the many barriers to career success “disconnected” youth face is to keep them out of the juvenile justice system entirely — and, in particular, out of juvenile detention and correctional institutions.

Indeed, although the goal underlying the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation — meaning that when youth leave the system they will be better off than when they entered, ready to gain employment and be contributing members to society — most juvenile facilities do little to prepare youth for adulthood and fail to properly treat the issues contributing to problematic behaviors.

In particular, many facilities are ill-equipped to provide appropriate treatment for the roughly 75 percent of youth in their care who were previously victims of violent trauma. Without treatment, this trauma can manifest as behavioral health conditions, mental illness and substance abuse, all of which are present at rates two to three times more for children in the juvenile justice system. Moreover, the poor conditions in juvenile facilities can often exacerbate these conditions, leading to further mental health problems. These issues are not new, but any proper response requires a thoughtful systemwide effort.

That’s exactly what Bob Listenbee plans to achieve. Previously serving as chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia for 16 years, Listenbee was later appointed by President Barack Obama as administrator of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Now, back in Philadelphia as a fellow with the Stoneleigh Foundation, Listenbee hopes to build bridges between the various justice system players to create a comprehensive support system for youth. He recently shared some of his innovative ideas with us.

Under Listenbee’s leadership, OJJDP issued a report finding that trauma will continue to manifest and disrupt a youth’s educational and emotional development until properly addressed. The report emphasized the implementation of “trauma-informed care,” a systemwide approach that recognizes the unique needs of youth who have experienced trauma during childhood. To effectively address trauma, ensuring it does not contribute to later involvement in the justice system, immediate intervention is necessary. Programs that provide counseling and support to young people experiencing domestic violence or gang violence at the moment of the impact have been proven effective.

Too often, trauma left untreated can manifest into involvement in the justice system. Rather than criminalizing the behaviors and incarcerating young people, further exacerbating the trauma they experience, effective programs divert young people out of the justice system and into treatment programs. When youth require more supervision than just treatment, we must make sure systems provide adequate treatment programs that are individualized to meet the youth’s needs.

In contrast, if trauma is left unaddressed, youth are unlikely to fully benefit from other rehabilitation programs such as job training and internships. Because of this, trauma-informed care must be included alongside other career programming so that youth can begin properly preparing gainful employment upon release. If trauma-informed care and job training are implemented successfully, our juvenile justice system can become a real instrument for positive change and rehabilitation.

Listenbee has repeatedly emphasized that just having the answers isn’t enough. The real challenge is implementing these changes across the country so we can start healing our youth as fast as possible. Addressing the root causes of incarceration will give “disconnected” youth the best chance to reach their potential and achieve their career goals.

At Juvenile Law Center, we agree that this approach will best serve not only young people but also their greater communities. We recommend it as a practice for all who are seriously interested in tackling issues of youth employment with system-involved kids.

Patrick Took is a legal intern at the Juvenile Law Center.

This is one in a series of blog posts from the Juvenile Law Center on career pathways and barriers for system-involved youth. It has been slightly edited and is reposted with permission. See the original and full series here.

OP-ED: What About the Girls?

Cathy Weiss, executive director of the StoneLeigh FoundationAre there more “bad girls” than there used to be?

Compared with previous generations, adolescent girls are getting into trouble with the law and with their peers at a rate much higher than their mothers’ generation or even that of their older sisters.

The number of girls in juvenile-justice facilities has increased 98 percent in the same time that the increase for boys was 29 percent. It follows that the number of adult female offenders also is skyrocketing.

A closer look, though, reveals a far more complex reality than simplistic labels.

Many “bad” behaviors exhibited by at-risk girls are, in fact, coping mechanisms for abuse, neglect, violence, family dysfunction, and the betrayal of trust experienced by too many young women. In one study, fully 97 percent of girls in a probation hall had experienced multiple traumas prior to their detention.

We can’t excuse or ignore bullying or law-breaking, or shrug away teen pregnancies and the resultant impact of unstable family lives, but we can better investigate the reasons for the fear, the acting out, and the unwise choices that are too often the by-products of the time that girls spend in the child-welfare and juvenile justice systems. We can explore ways to better recognize and harness the strength and resilience of girls and develop strategies to help them break out of intergenerational cycles of violence and abuse.

That is why Stoneleigh Foundation dedicated our annual symposium to ask, “What About the Girls?” in both the child-welfare system (foster care) as well as the juvenile-justice system. It disturbs us that there is a basic lack of awareness of how the challenges faced by girls differ markedly from those of boys.

For example, while boys tend to find themselves in danger from people who dislike them (rival gangs for example), the violence in girls’ lives usually comes from those to whom they are saying, “I love you.” If we don’t take differences like those into account, we can’t help the girls who need help.

Perhaps the problems of at-risk girls are invisible to many of us because no one thinks to ask, what about the girls?

Girls’ biology means they face different threats to their well-being. Consider this: A national study of preteens and teens in public schools found that 80 percent had experienced some form of sexual harassment, 42 percent of rape victims are under 18, and one in five female victims of stalking are aged 11 to 17. Girls make up 59 percent of the victims of violence against juveniles and 79 percent of those violent acts are sexual assaults. As our conference’s keynote speaker, Malika Saada Saar, the director of Rights4Girls, has pointed out, in a recent FBI raid in 70 cities, 60 percent of the child sex-trafficking victims were children from foster care or group homes.

It is a bitter irony: The foster-care system, which is supposed to provide a safe haven for children who have been the victims of abuse and neglect often ends up being places where they are further victimized and trapped. Girls in the child-welfare system face more teen pregnancies, bad birth outcomes, and poor health, and they are more likely to abuse their own children. For many girls, the child-welfare system leads directly to the juvenile-justice system.

Once there, girls face a “one size fits all” approach to rehabilitation, and that one size fits boys. The juvenile justice system is designed to serve boys, based on research into their psychology and their needs.

At our symposium, Temple University junior Larbriah Morgan, who spent most of her life in foster care but has managed to stay in school, noted that she had to find her way by “doing the opposite of what I saw” from many of the women in her own family. As she looks back, she believes that she, and countless young women like her, would benefit from the guidance of adult women who have survived similar odds.

Indeed, the whole system would be transformed if it started paying attention to what it means to be a girl in the 21st century, and focused on the best ways to help girls become healthy and safe adult women who control their own destinies.

This piece was originally published by The Philadelphia Inquirer on May 27, 2014.

Cathy Weiss is the executive director of the Stoneleigh Foundation. A recognized expert in philanthropy and public policy, Cathy has more than 20 years of leadership experience in family foundation management, strategic planning, organizational and resource development, philanthropic collaboration and research.