New Report Provides Framework for Research-Informed Juvenile Probation

Timothy Daty, University of New Haven
In the recent decades, research concerning juvenile offenders has greatly expanded and become quite influential in the shaping of policies and practices. In particular, research has consistently shown that juvenile populations represent a unique population of offenders and that distinct treatments are appropriate. Based on these findings, Harvell and colleagues (2018) argue that the criminal justice system must recognize such differences. Unlike adult offenders, juveniles are still developing both psychologically and biologically. As a result, juveniles often have lower self-control, especially during emotional situations. In these instances, behavior can be widely affected and delinquency can result (Harvell et al., 2018; National Research Council, 2013). Creating strategies that are specifically tailored to juvenile offenders is the most effective course of action to reduce reoffending. In their research report, Harvell et al. (2018) stress collaboration between researchers and practitioners, particularly within juvenile probation.

Juvenile probation is an important area within the criminal justice system. Probation officers often interact with juvenile offenders and the nature of these interactions can be quite impactful. Positive interactions between probation officers and youth often yield the most positive results (Harvell et al., 2018). Unfortunately, probation officers are not always trained to deal with juvenile offenders. When dealing with youth, they often apply the same tactics are used with adult offenders. However, the distinction between adult and youth offenders is quite substantial. As such, probation strategies are not always applicable across all populations. Juveniles require developmentally appropriate practices during the probation process (Harvell et al., 2018). When these practices are tailored to juveniles, greater long-term outcomes can be achieved. Unfortunately, logistical obstacles can arise within the broader Juvenile Justice context. Probation officers may have occupational limitations, making it difficult to tailor current practices to youth offenders. Depending on jurisdiction, probation officers may have limited capacities in areas such as case adjudication, sanction development, child welfare, incentives and/or pre-court decisions (Harvell et al., 2018). These limitations can hinder the overall effectiveness of probation officers on juvenile offenders. Harvell and colleagues call for greater collaboration within the juvenile justice system and new strategies that are informed by current research. In doing so, the juvenile justice system can enhance public safety by holding youth accountable, preventing future delinquency, and promoting healthy development (Harvell et al., 2018)
In response to this issue of juvenile probation, the Bridging Research and Practice to Advance Juvenile Justice and Safety project (Bridge Project) emerged. The Bridge Project is a joint initiative developed by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Urban Institute. The Bridge Project seeks to enhance the interactions between probation officers and juvenile offenders through research-focused interventions. To accomplish this, the Bridge Project split into several phases. The first phase sought to identify areas where policies and practices were not fully informed by research. The second phase looked to improve the skills of probation officers and agencies to better address youth probation and employ research-driven strategies. Lastly, products for both practitioners and for the implementation of these strategies will be produced (Harvell et al., 2018).
To make these probation improvements, current practices need to be adapted. Currently, probation officers often employ traditional strategies when working with youth. This commonly includes surveillance and sanction models. However, research-driven practices look to shift focus towards holding youth accountable and promoting long-term positive development. Research suggests that juvenile offenders are better served when diverted from the justice system and supervised through other means (Harvell et al., 2018). For instance, juveniles released into their homes and supervised by probation officers may display better outcomes than detained juveniles. In making this shift in policy, juveniles may have a greater respect for the law and may cease delinquent offending (Harvell et al., 2018). To accomplish this, probation practices must incorporate research into five key areas:


  • screening, assessment and structured decision-making
  • case planning
  • matching services and promoting positive youth development
  • structuring supervision to promote long-term behavior change
  • incentivizing success and implementing graduated responses 

Screening, Assessment & Structured Decision-making

The use of a risk-needs-responsivity (RNR) framework can be especially effective within youth probation. The RNR framework is modeled from research concerning juvenile offenders. The RNR model is composed of three core tenets: the risk principle, the need principle, and the responsivity principle (Harvell et al., 2018). For effectiveness within the juvenile justice system, youth at high risk for offending can be identified (the risk principle), needs that will reduce the youth’s likelihood of reoffending will be addressed (the need principle), and lastly the interventions will be delivered in a manner that reflects the responsiveness of the individual youth (the responsivity principle). Risk and needs assessment tools are particularly useful for practitioners. Through use of these tools, professionals can better predict the needs of an individual youth and determine the overall likelihood of reoffending. As such, the RNR model contributes to effective, efficient, and fair case management and processing.

Case Planning

Once risk assessments have been conducted on the juvenile offender, case planning serves as the next step. Case plans are individually tailored and should represent the needs of a specific youth. These case plans serve as road maps, guiding both the practitioners and the youth towards desired outcomes (Harvell et al., 2018). By developing an effective case plan, practitioners can monitor overall progress and ensure that the individual needs of the youth are being addressed. Case plans often stress collaboration between the youth, their families, the probation officers, and the community. Research suggests that youth respond better to certain interventions, particularly when these interventions reflect the needs of the individual. For instance, research has shown the importance of prosocial relationships with family and the community-at-large (Harvell et al., 2018). For probation officers specifically, positive relationships with their juvenile clients can be especially effective. However, when applying research into case planning, probation officers must be mindful of several factors. First, probation officers must engage both the youth and their caregivers when developing a case plan. Case plans should be a joint collaboration where probation goals can be set and prioritized. Second, clear expectations must be outlined. Goals need to be set and probation officers must carefully monitor youth in their pursuit to achieve these goals. Lastly, consequences for noncompliance must be communicated clearly to both the youth and their caregivers. Both the youth and the caregivers must understand the terms of probation and requirements that must be upheld.

Matching Services and Promoting Positive Youth Development

Positive youth development is a framework derived from research. Research has consistently shown that interventions grounded in fear, deterrence, and/or control are ineffective among juvenile populations (Harvell et al., 2018). These practices are often seen as impersonal and can often yield undesired outcomes such as recidivism. In response, the positive youth development framework seeks to connect to youth on a personal level. These interventions promote community support, strength-building and cognitive-behavioral techniques to reduce recidivism more effectively (Bonta & Andrews, 2007; Howell & Lipsey, 2012; NRC, 2013). Moreover, when these types of interventions are employed, youth often respond positively. Research suggests that greater academic achievement, family communication, psychological well-being, self-esteem, and life skills are often achieved through these interventions (Catalano et al., 2004). For probation officers especially, these outcomes can be achieved by connecting youth to culturally and gender responsive programming, evidence-based programs that reflect the individual’s needs, positive mentorship and community opportunities to apply their new skills.

Structuring Supervision to Promote Long-Term Behavior Change

Historically, probation models have often emphasized control and oversight as a means of limiting juvenile recidivism (Harvell et al., 2018). However, these tactics have shown minimal effectiveness in reducing juvenile reoffending. Rather, programs that focus on the development of these youth have yielded more positive outcomes in recidivism (Harvell et al., 2018). When client-centered approaches are utilized within youth probation, youth have exhibited more positive behaviors and lower recidivism rates. For the RNR model, these research findings serve as the guiding principles for juvenile probation. Research has shown that probation officers can have a tremendous impact on juveniles when the relationship achieves cooperation and respect. More specifically, probation officers are most effective when they employ three strategies (Harvell et al., 2018). First, using structured meetings with youth to support long-term behavior change. During meetings, probation officers should utilize this time to foster a relationship with the youth and his/her family. This time should be used to identify needs, formulate shared goals, and determine ways to achieve such goals. This can be achieved through empathy, motivational interviewing, and collective problem solving. Second, probation officers should treat youth fairly and consistently while responding to their unique needs. To accomplish this, probation officers should clearly explain their role, use accessible language, and make conscious efforts to reduce disparities and unconscious bias in interactions with youth (Harvell et al., 2018, NRC, 2013). Lastly, probation officers should foster a genuine, supportive, prosocial relationship with youth. When dealing with these youth, probation officers should create positive relationships built on trust, mutual respect and role modeling (Harvell et al., 2018; Schawalbe, 2012; Trotter & Evans, 2012). Throughout the course of probation, these probation officers should be mindful and actively work to maintain these positive relationships.

Incentivizing Success and Implementing Graduated Responses

Probation practices often use punitive sanctions as a means of inhibiting reoffending. Unfortunately, research has shown that such a strategy is far less effective practice than those driven by incentives and rewards (Harvell et al., 2018). Positive reinforcement can have a profound impact on juvenile behaviors. Recognizing the accomplishments of youth through rewards can be effective in shaping healthy decision-making among youth. In an effort to earn rewards, juveniles will be motivated and behave positively in various contexts. Encouraging accountability through graduated responses is also critical. While rewarding positive behaviors can be effective, non-compliance is inevitable among some youth. When non-compliance does surface, youth must be held accountable. However, being held accountable does not necessarily equate to punishment. Rather, youth can be held accountable through constructive sanctions that promote development and positive outcomes. Restorative Justice is a commonly used practice to achieve such a goal. Restorative Justice programs promote positive accountability through mediation between the youth and their victims. Through mediation, these relationships can be repaired and healing can be achieved in the long-term. When developing incentives and sanctions, it is also important to consider procedural fairness. All youth should be treated consistently within the juvenile justice system. To do so, potential disparities in treatment must be recognized. While factors such as race, gender, class, and religion have historically produced inequality in treatment, procedural fairness must be achieved moving forward.   


Research plays an important part in the both the development and continued effectiveness of policies and practices. Moving forward, practitioners should continue to incorporate new research findings in the treatment of offenders within the criminal justice system. As Harvell and colleagues (2018) have outlined, research-informed policies can be especially beneficial within juvenile probation. Juveniles have distinct characteristics when compared to adults. As such, probation strategies used on adults are commonly ineffective among juveniles. As such, innovative techniques can produce lasting results among juvenile offenders and significantly reduce the likelihood of youth recidivism.
The full report can be found at:


Bonta, J., & Andrews, D. A. (2007). Risk-Need-Responsivity Model for Offender Assessment and Rehabilitation. Ottawa, ON: Public Safety Canada.

Catalano, R. F., Berglund, M. L., Ryan, J. A. M., Lonczak, H. S., & Hawkins, J. D. (2004). Positive Youth Development in the United States: Research Findings on Evaluations of Positive Youth Development Programs. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591(1): 98–124.

Harvell, S., Love, H., Pelletier, E., Warnberg, C., Willison, J. B., & Winkler, M. K. (2018). Bridging Research and Practice in Juvenile Probation. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Howell, J. C., &. Lipsey, M. W. (2012). Research-Based Guidelines for Juvenile Justice Programs. Justice Research and Policy, 14(1): 17–34.

NRC (National Research Council, 2013). Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach. Committee on Assessing Juvenile Justice Reform, Richard J. Bonnie, Robert L. Johnson, Betty M. Chemers, and Julie A. Schuck, eds. Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Schwalbe, C. S. (2012). Toward an Integrated Theory of Probation. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 39(2): 185–201.

Trotter, C., & Evans, P. (2012). An Analysis of Supervision Skills in Youth Probation. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 45(2): 255–73.

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