Imagine having 40 kids. Every day, you need to know whether they went to school, where they will be afterward, and with whom they will be spending their time. You worry about whether they had enough to eat and whether their shoes fit properly. You are consumed with thoughts of how to be the best role model possible for scores of young minds.

Juvenile probation officers supervise such vast numbers of children. More specifically, they monitor young people who have been accused or convicted of committing a crime. They pay attention to whether these children are acting lawfully and participating in any court-ordered programs. And while probation officers aren’t these children’s parents, they are responsible for the children’s well-being.

Though the average caseload will depend on jurisdiction, research has found that each officer oversees anywhere from 20 to 40 youth at any given time. This stretches officers’ time and attention thin, making it difficult for them to give seriously at-risk children the care they need. Reducing the number of youth on probation — and making strategic decisions about which young person will most benefit from supervision — will go a long way toward making juvenile probation more effective.

In Alabama, a young person can be placed under a consent decree, a pretrial diversion option where the youth will be supervised for as long as six months and if they remain crime free then the formal adjudication process will end. While this is an excellent option that keeps children out of juvenile detention, it does increase the caseload for juvenile probation officers.

Rather than shift away from pretrial diversion for youth, law enforcement officers in the state might consider deflection of low-level crimes. Deflection is a term used to describe a police officer’s discretion about where to arrest or detain a person. When police officers are called to help control youth engaged in low risk activities, they should consider allowing the young person to remain either in the educational system or partner with a community organization, instead of arresting them or placing them on probation.

Many juvenile probation officers bring to the job an educational background focused on psychology, child development and social interaction. When provided the appropriate space, officers can use this knowledge to help monitor and rehabilitate children who are on probation. Unfortunately, large caseloads prevent them from being able to develop and implement individualized plans for each child — especially those who most need rehabilitative supervision. As Steven Bishop, a juvenile-probation-officer-turned-reform-advocate observes, “I had a group of kids who I couldn’t give enough attention to, or the right kind. These were young people with serious and/or repeat offenses, many of whom had multiple treatment needs, but who also needed basic support and opportunities.”

Large caseloads stem from overcriminalization of youthful behavior. In recent times, school boards and legislatures have increasingly passed policies to criminalize behaviors that were once controlled by parents or school administrators. As a result, schools are pushing youth into the juvenile justice system for acts that, in the past, would have been handled by teachers or a principal. The Atlantic published a story in 2016 about one such incident where a South Carolina high school student refused to surrender her cellphone to her algebra teacher and was subsequently wrestled out of her chair and handcuffed by an officer in her classroom. This story is not uncommon. In fact, every year about 1,200 kids in South Carolina are charged with “disturbing school” — a vague offense that can include yelling, shoving or cursing. Many of these types of cases result in a young person being put on probation or even held in a detention facility.

Detaining a young person, even one who has engaged in violent or extremely risky behavior, should be a last resort. Removing youth from their support systems — like family, friends and school personnel — can lead to further risky, and even criminal, choices as they age. Still, even though probation is favorable compared to detention, probation remains a serious consequence that should be used in a limited, effective way.

When we overuse probation, especially for low-risk youth, we only add to juvenile probation officers’ heavy caseloads. When overburdened with cases, probation officers are not able to provide moderate- or high-risk youth the individualized care they need. As a result, they cannot adequately address causes of problem behavior, putting these young people at risk for continued involvement in the system.

Image credit: Jan H Andersen