Juvenile Probation Supervision Contacts in a Reforming State: Rise of the Street-Level Expert?

Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 3, March 2021, 332 –353.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854820980782
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Rise of the Street-Level Expert?
Rutgers University–Newark
Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General
We examined juvenile probation officers’ use of evidence-based principles in routine supervision contacts in five counties of
a reforming state, focusing on relationship quality, attention to criminogenic needs, and the use of structuring activities. We
did this using ethnographic observations of 112 routine supervision contacts, supplemented by qualitative interviews and a
practitioner survey. Analysis showed officers typically applied some evidence-based principles in supervision meetings,
though encounters varied in their focus on rehabilitation, and whether rehabilitative work used specialized techniques.
Variations were shaped by client circumstances and meeting contexts. They also reflected officers’ affinity for specialized
approaches, with evidence suggesting the existence of a group of “experts” within the officer population committed to using
specialized techniques. The presence of experts was related, in part, to offices’ leadership, organizational practices, and his-
tory with evidence-based reforms. Findings offer cautious optimism about the prospects for mainstreaming these evidence-
based principles within community corrections agencies.
Keywords: probation; community supervision; risk-need-responsivity; offender treatment; implementation
For many decades, the work of community corrections agencies has arguably been domi-
nated by people-processing tasks. These include conducting assessments, making refer-
rals, monitoring compliance, and issuing violations (Taxman, 2008). Recent years, however,
have seen a renewed interest in people-changing strategies that equip officers to perform
AUTHORS’ NOTE: This project was supported by Award No. 2015-R2-CX-0015, awarded by the National
Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclu-
sions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect
those of the Department of Justice. The authors are aware of no conflict of interest associated with this article.
The authors would like to thank all the partners and participants in this project, including all the Pennsylvania
juvenile probation officers and supporting staff who gave their time to assist with this research, the Pennsylvania
Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission, and the Pennsylvania Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers.
Selected anonymized data from this project are available from the ICPSR data archive at Michigan.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Joel Miller, School of Criminal Justice, Center
for Law and Justice, Rutgers University, 123 Washington Street, Suite 549, Newark, NJ 07102; e-mail: joel.
980782CJBXXX10.1177/0093854820980782Criminal Justice and BehaviorMiller, Harding / Short Title
direct rehabilitative work in their interactions with clients (Bourgon et al., 2012; Smith
et al., 2012). These strategies involve evidence-based approaches which focus officers on
building quality relationships with clients (Dowden & Andrews, 2004; McMurran, 2009;
Skeem et al., 2007), discussing clients’ criminogenic needs (Bonta et al., 2008), and work-
ing to influence client cognitions and behaviors (Bonta & Andrews, 2017; Dowden &
Andrews, 2004).
Where evaluated, recent organizational efforts to introduce people-changing strategies
have met with promising but mixed results (Bonta et al., 2019; Chadwick et al., 2015;
Latessa et al., 2013). There is some evidence that shortcomings may, in part, reflect defi-
ciencies in staff commitment and adherence (Bonta et al., 2019). This is unsurprising:
Frontline workers in service organizations often resist new policies (Lipsky, 1980), a
dynamic that may be further exacerbated in correctional settings by a disconnect between
progressive policies and traditional cultures of risk management (Viglione, 2017; Viglione
et al., 2015b).
This study seeks to expand our understanding of the way frontline practitioners respond
to evidence-based policies. It does this by examining the behaviors of juvenile probation
officers in the context of a statewide reform effort in Pennsylvania that has sought to incor-
porate people-changing practices into juvenile probation. It describes the character of offi-
cer–youth interactions, examines the extent to which they incorporate evidence-based
principles, and explores the dynamics that shape their use. In doing so, it offers insights into
the prospects for mainstreaming these principles into the fabric of community corrections
Community corrections policies have changed substantially over the last half century.
Prior to the late 1970s, supervision provided rehabilitative support to clients in the com-
munity (Taxman, 2008; Viglione et al., 2015b). Subsequently, the “punitive turn” (Garland,
2001) saw U.S. criminal justice shift toward populist crime policies, which put community
corrections systems on a more surveillance and control-oriented footing (Butts & Mears,
2001; Petersilia, 1998; Taxman, 2008). Over the past two or three decades, criminal justice
policies have softened somewhat to embrace a stronger rehabilitative mission (Gramlich,
2018; Subramanian & Tublitz, 2012). The latter has been informed by an evidence-base that
challenges the value of punitive interventions (Lipsey & Cullen, 2007), supports decision-
making based on risks and needs (Bonta & Andrews, 2017), and promotes therapeutic
approaches such as cognitive behavioral programs (Lipsey et al., 2007). This shift has also
led to the incorporation of rehabilitation models into the mainstream of community correc-
tions supervision, while retaining many of the enforcement and monitoring functions
emphasized during the “get tough” era (Taxman, 2008).
Across this period, however, community corrections organizations have arguably been
primarily people-processing agencies. According to Hasenfeld (1972), such organizations
focus on classifying clients, affixing labels, and making dispositions to which other people-
changing agencies respond. This pattern is most clear in the law enforcement functions of
supervision: Officers monitor clients for compliance, issue violations, or close out success-
ful cases, and often follow-up violations or similar behavior with court, placement facilities,

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