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Report: Time for Change in Youth Probation System

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Because young people respond better to incentives rather than punishment, a Pierce County juvenile probation program offers rewards for completing tasks like community service. (MargJohnsonVA/Twenty20)
Because young people respond better to incentives rather than punishment, a Pierce County juvenile probation program offers rewards for completing tasks like community service. (MargJohnsonVA/Twenty20)
 By Eric Tegethoff - Producer, Contact
May 10, 2018

TACOMA, Wash. – A new report looks at alternatives to probation being implemented nationwide in juvenile justice courts, including an innovative approach in Washington state.

>The Annie E. Casey Foundation report explores ways of effectively modernizing probation for young people while still keeping the public safe.

It suggests diverting the massive caseloads of nonviolent youth to more focused programs aimed at positive behavior changes rather than punitive measures, because research shows young people respond better to incentives than punishment.

Pierce County is doing this with Opportunity-Based Probation, a pilot program that offers points to children who stay on track that can be redeemed for rewards.

"One of our desires to pursue probation transformation work was to take research from adolescent brain development, which strongly just says a lot of the things that we know – that young people are way more motivated by rewards as opposed to punishment and consequences,” says Kevin Williams, a probation manager for the Pierce County Juvenile Court. “So, we wanted to apply that in probation practice."

The rewards range from bus passes to bigger incentives such as movie and concert tickets.

Although the sample size is small, Williams says the program has been effective at keeping youth from re-offending and violating parole.

Pierce County has worked with The Casey Foundation since 2004 on juvenile justice reforms and became a probation transformation site in 2014.

The report says diverting nonviolent young people away from traditional probation helps direct more resources into rehabilitating those at a higher risk of re-offending.

"A lot of these youth are the youth we can least afford to kind of get it wrong with,” stresses Steve Bishop, senior associate with The Casey Foundation Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. “They're young people who often have endured a good bit of trauma in their own lives, and been working through a lot of crisis and issues.

“These are the young people we should really be reserving our most effective and innovative interventions for."

The report also notes young people of color are over-represented in the justice system and says probation plays a role in that.

Across the country, nearly 400,000 young people receive some form of probation each year.

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