States can reform youth probation with federal reform across the line

States can reform youth probation with federal reform across the line
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At the tail end of 2018, the House and Senate came together and passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act. This legislation reauthorizes the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which funds state efforts to prevent youth crime and improve the youth justice system. The law also emphasizes enacting policies that reflect the latest findings on adolescent development, a sorely needed reform within the youth probation system.

This year, state and local policymakers have an opportunity to follow the lead of Congress by rethinking the current role of this most common juvenile justice sanction. Every person makes poor decisions as a kid, particularly as a teenager. Adolescents typically experiment with risky behaviors, have trouble regulating their emotions on their own, and fail to anticipate the future consequences of their actions. Developmental research suggests that, with time, most adolescents will grow out of these habits naturally as they mature. How our society responds to the poor decisions that adolescents tend to make, particularly those that threaten criminal sanctions, should be based on this developmental research.

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Yet, many jurisdictions do not account for these findings in their use of probation to punish youth who commit crime. Rather than reserving it for youth best supported by an intensive program, probation has become an catch all response to youth who pose little or no harm to society and, in some cases, to those who have not even committed a crime. In 2015, voluntary probation accounted for 58 percent of the caseload of probation officers placed in Los Angeles County schools.

Voluntary probation occurs when youth are referred to the justice system and, with parental agreement, are placed under the supervision of a probation officer without court involvement. But many of these youth had been referred to the justice system simply because they demonstrated poor school performance, poor attendance, or poor behavior in class. These problems should not be referred to the justice system. They are more appropriately left to be dealt with by parents, educators, and community support networks. Indeed, placing these youth on probation incurs taxpayer costs that are better spent on academic interventions.

In other instances, youth behavior is appropriately referred to the justice system, but this should not automatically elicit a formal intervention. Youth who have made a poor decision but are unlikely to do so again are ripe candidates for diversion, or an intervention that redirects youth away from formal case processing. Putting these low risk youth on any type of probation may actually result in higher rearrest and reconviction rates. Furthermore, when low risk youth fail to meet the conditions of their probation, they are at risk of being sent to youth prison, regardless of the harm they present to society and at great cost to taxpayers. As a result, these youth may ultimately pose more harm to society and public safety.

Conversely, by expanding the use of diversion, we can more effectively allocate the limited time and resources available to probation officers to serve those youth who do need more individualized attention from the justice system. The justice system has an obligation to communities, taxpayers, and youth to use its power of enforcement wisely. Youth should be put on probation only when doing so is deemed the most effective method of holding them accountable and for promoting public safety.

Jurisdictions across the nation are recognizing this fact and beginning to embrace diversion. In 2017, Los Angeles County embarked on a juvenile diversion effort that allows officers to counsel and release youth who commit low level misdemeanors or status offenses, acts that would be legal if the individual engaging in the offense was an adult. Officers may also divert youth who commit low level offenses to community diversion programs. In 2018, the Los Angeles County Probation Department began removing officers from schools and looking instead at community programs that promise to reduce poor behavior without involving the justice system. Other jurisdictions stand to benefit by following suit.

With the passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, federal policymakers have provided a mandate to enact programs based on evidence in the youth justice system. It is now up to local policymakers to take the lead and pursue reform. With hundreds of thousands of youth counting on them, improving youth probation should be the first item on their agenda.

Emily Mooney is a criminal justice policy associate for the R Street Institute.