Transforming Practice Through Culture Change: Probation Staff Perspectives on Juvenile Justice Reform

Date01 July 2020
Published date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Transforming Practice
Through Culture Change:
Probation Staff Perspectives
on Juvenile Justice Reform
Sino Esthappan
, Johanna Lacoe
, Janine M. Zweig
and Douglas W. Young
Probation plays a central role in the juvenile justice system, and probation officers are often involved
in numerous decisions made in juvenile courts. This study examines the views of probation staff from
23 jurisdictions, some of which participated in an Annie E. Casey Foundation–funded juvenile justice
reform effort intended to safely and significantly reduce the use of out-of-home placements,
especially for youth of color. We survey juvenile probation staff members at two waves and describe
changes in reported practices and principles relating to individualized case planning, youth
engagement, family and community engagement, and racial and ethnic equity and inclusion as well as
beliefs about the purposes of out-of-home placement. Reform sites reported slightly more frequent
use of practices and principles addressing community engagement and racial and ethnic equity and
inclusion in the second wave than in the first wave.
juvenile justice, juvenile probation, probation officer roles, racial and ethnic disparities, family
Probation is the most commonly used disposition in juvenile court. In 2017, almost 300,000 cases
adjudicated delinquent resulted in formal or informal probation (Hockenberry & Puzzanchera,
2018). Nearly every young person who enco unters the juvenile justice system int eracts with a
juvenile probation staff member (Development Services Group, 2017; Steiner et al., 2003). Juvenile
probation officers (POs) play a central role in the juvenile justice system, and many POs have
discretion to make decisions about cases that enter the juvenile court. POs often conduct intake
interviews and investigations; make court recommendations about diversion, case processing, and
Urban Institute, Washington, DC, USA
University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA
University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sino Esthappan, Urban Institute, 500 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20024, USA.
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
2020, Vol. 18(3) 274-293
ªThe Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1541204020901761
out-of-home placement; and work with youth placed on probation or returning to the community
from confinement (Kurlychek et al., 1999; Steiner et al., 2003; Torbet, 1996).
Despite a growing literature base that encourages implementing risks and needs assessments,
engaging youth and families, and matching youth to appropriate services, standard probation prac-
tices often do not align with the evidence on what works to improve outcomes for youth who interact
with the juvenile justice system (Love & Harvell , 2016). Efforts to change traditional juvenile
probation practices require shifts in organizational culture and values, particularly with regard to
the principles of juvenile probation practice and views on the purposes of out-of-home placement.
This article describes a reform effort funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, that aimed to reduce
out-of-home placements through culture change within juvenile justice systems, focused primarily
on juvenile probation departments.
The Intervention
Culture change has been a core strategy of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s (the Foundation)
juvenile justice reform efforts. In 1992, the Foundation began its Juvenile Detention Alternatives
Initiative (JDAI
) in response to growing recognition about the nation’s overreliance on youth
detention. Since then, the Foundation has worked with nearly 300 sites across the country to reduce
local detention populations. JDAI provides participating sites with direct technical assistance, anal-
yses and tools, peer-learning networks, and conferences.
In 2013, JDAI had achieved nearly a 44%
reduction in the average daily population in detention (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2014b). It
also saw a 40%reduction in the number of youth of color in detention among participating sites
by that year (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2014a), though studies have found mixed results
on JDAI’s impact on reducing racial and ethnic disparities in detention (Carlton et al., 2017;
Leiber & Fix, 2019; Maggard, 2013). In 2012 and 2014, the Foundation selected 13 sites
participatinginJDAItoexpandtheirdetention reform efforts to out-of-home placements in
residential facilities referred to as the “deep end” of the system.
These sites applied and were
selected to participate in the deep end reform in part because they showed promise to advance
in select reform areas.
The primary goal of the deep end reform was to safely and significantly reduce the number of out-
of-home placements through a range of supports to sites, especially for youth of color who dis-
proportionately received such disp ositions. The Foundation’s financi al and technical assistance
resources for the deep end reform were invested in communities with a focus on juvenile probation
due to the central role it plays in processing youth through the juvenile justice system. Deep end
reform sites engaged in a set of intensive, tailored reform activities, and received substantial tech-
nical assistance from the Foundation and other providers to help meet their goals of reducing the
number of youth, particularly youth of color, who progress deeper into the juvenile justice system.
The reform effort focused on two critical drivers of out-of-home placements: placements that
occurred at initial disposition and those that occurred through violations of probation. Below, we
describe some of the activities that deep end reform sites pursued to advance these aspects of the
Youth and family engagement strategies were critical components of the deep end reform. Deep
end reform sites made concerted efforts to understand the needs of youth and families through
satisfaction surveys, focus groups of family members of probation-involved youth, and family
councils and work groups. These activities were designed to incorporate youth and family voices
into juvenile justice decision-making and improve the juvenile court’s interaction with family
members. These activities align with research on best practices, which suggest that family involve-
ment in juvenile case processing helps prioritize youths’ treatment needs, keeps families informed,
and provides juvenile justice system staff with adequate knowledge and insights to make informed
Esthappan et al. 275

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