At the tail end of 2018, the House and Senate banded together to pass the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018. JJRA reauthorizes the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which funds state efforts to prevent youth crime and improve the youth justice system. JJRA also emphasizes enacting policies that reflect the latest findings on adolescent development — a sorely needed reform within the youth probation system.

Now, in 2019, state and local policymakers have an opportunity to follow Congress’ lead by rethinking the current role of this most commonjuvenile justice sanction. Every person makes poor decisions as a kid, particularly as a teenager. Adolescents typically experiment with risky behaviors, have trouble self-regulating their emotions 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 society responds to the poor decisions adolescents tend to make — particularly those that threaten criminal sanctions — should be based on this research.

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, individualized program, probation has become a catchall response to youth who pose little or no harm to society and, in some cases, to those who have not even committed a crime.

For example, in fiscal year 2015-2016, individuals on 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 probation-officer supervision without official 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 have been 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 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 particularly ripe candidates for diversion, broadly defined as an intervention that redirects youth away from formal case processing. Putting these low-risk youth on any type of probation may actually resulting higher re-arrest and reconviction rates. Furthermore, when low-risk youth fail to meet the conditions of their probation, they’re 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 intensive, individualized attention from the justice system. The justice system has an obligation to the community, 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 promoting public safety.

Jurisdictions across the nation are recognizing this fact and beginning to embrace diversion. For example, at the end of 2017, Los Angeles Countyembarked 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 certain low-level offenses to community-led diversion programs. Additionally, in 2018, the Los Angeles County Probation Department began removing officers from schools and looking instead at community-led programs that promise to reduce poor behavior without involving the justice system. Other localities stand to benefit by following suit.

With the passage of JJRA, federal policymakers have provided a mandate to enact evidence-based programming and policy 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 policy should be the first item on their agenda.

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