Key Elements of Effective Programs

To implement effective intervention programs for delinquents, it is necessary to first understand how delinquency develops. Much has been written about the causes and correlates of delinquency, the risk factors that predispose young people to commit crimes, the protective factors that protect them from a criminogenic lifestyle, and the developmental pathways to disruptive behavior that persist from childhood through adolescence.

Research Findings as a Guide to Program Development

Social science research has demonstrated that there is no single cause of delinquency. Any number of factors are related to it, and delinquent behavior is likely to coexist with other problem behaviors. Moreover, no single event affects the developmental trajectory of delinquent behavior. Researchers now agree that there are factors that put young people at risk of becoming delinquent and factors that protect or buffer them from the consequences of exposure to risks.

Risk factors associated with delinquency exist in four areas or domains within which youth interact: peer group, family, school, and community. Protective factors (which either reduce the impact of a risk or change the way a person responds to it) fall into three basic categories: an individual's innate characteristics, bonding (e.g., attachment and integration), and healthy beliefs and clear standards of behavior (Hawkins and Catalano, 1992).

OJJDP's Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency, conducted in three cities (Denver, CO; Pittsburgh, PA; and Rochester, NY), has found that delinquency often develops according to an orderly progression from less to more serious behavior (Huizinga, Loeber, and Thornberry, 1994). Findings from this research also point to the co-occurrence of problem behaviors. Delinquent behavior does not exist in isolation from other problem behaviors. Delinquents are likely to use drugs, engage in sex, have reading problems, exhibit acting-out behaviors, and join gangs. Furthermore, if left unchecked, delinquency weakens protective factors (e.g., attachment to parents, commitment to school).

The bottom line from the research is that there is no single cause of delinquency and, therefore, no "magic bullet" to cure it. However, there is consensus that research on how delinquency develops can be used to identify several elements of effective programs.

A meta-analysis of mostly community-based private provider programs found that effective programs: (1) concentrate on changing behavior and improving prosocial skills, (2) focus on problem solving with both juveniles and their families, (3) have multiple modes of intervention, and (4) are highly structured and intensive (Lipsey, 1992). Such programs are likely to be 10- to 20-percent more effective in reducing subsequent delinquency than less structured programs that emphasize individual counseling or general education. Lipsey also found that augmented forms of probation (e.g., intensive supervision and restitution) have positive effects.

In addition, research has reached numerous conclusions regarding court practices and probation interventions. Court intervention should start early in an attempt to interrupt developmental pathways before serious, violent, and chronic delinquency emerges (Huizinga, Loeber, and Thornberry, 1994). A juvenile's risks and needs must be identified and matched to the intervention. In considering the most appropriate disposition, public safety must not be confused with appropriate treatment. While a youth's instant offense may be a useful indicator of his or her potential risk to the community, it is not a good indicator of what kind of programming is required to change the individual's behavior (Greenwood, 1996). Programs must incorporate a comprehensive array of interventions and services of sufficient duration to address entrenched problem behavior patterns (Huizinga, Loeber, and Thornberry, 1994).

In particular, interventions should:

  • Concentrate on changing negative behaviors by requiring juveniles to recognize and understand thought processes that rationalize negative behaviors (Greenwood and Zimring, 1985).

  • Promote healthy bonds with, and respect for, prosocial members within the juvenile's family, peer, school, and community network (Hawkins and Catalano, 1992).

  • Have a comprehensible and predictable path for client progression and movement. Each program level should be directed toward and directly related to the next step (Altschuler and Armstrong, 1984).

  • Have consistent, clear, and graduated consequences for misbehavior and recognition for positive behavior (Altschuler and Armstrong, 1984).

  • Recognize that a reasonable degree of attrition must be expected with a delinquent population (Community Research Associates, 1987).

  • Provide an assortment of highly structured programming activities, including education and/or hands-on vocational training and skill development (Altschuler and Armstrong, 1984).

  • Facilitate discussions that promote family problem solving.

  • Integrate delinquent and at-risk youth into generally prosocial groups to prevent the development of delinquent peer groups (Huizinga, Loeber, and Thornberry, 1994). Bringing together only at-risk or delinquent youth to engage in school or community activities is likely to be counterproductive.

Research has also shown that community groups must be engaged to create and support prosocial community activities in which youth can succeed (Huizinga, Loeber, and Thornberry, 1994). Schools, the public agency to which parents first turn for help with their children's problem behavior, should be prepared to provide help to families (Huizinga, Loeber, and Thornberry, 1994). The most effective systems will be flexible and continuously experimental, provide a wide range of treatment and placement options, and be accountable for their results. All things being equal, community-based alternatives are likely to be more effective than similar programs in institutions (Greenwood, 1996).

Effective Implementation and Evaluation

Juvenile courts and probation departments seeking to hold juveniles accountable and expand their sanctioning capacity should complete the following tasks:

  • Identify the problem to be addressed or the gaps in sanctions or services.

  • Identify possible approaches to address the need.

  • Review existing research to determine which approaches are effective.

  • Adapt programs known to be successful in other communities (i.e., adapt a model to fit local need).

  • Commit to quality implementation of key components (i.e., incorporate those key elements that led to the program's success and remain true to its theoretical foundation).

  • Conduct a process evaluation or monitor the program to ensure that the model has been followed.

  • Compare recidivism data with those for graduates of other programs handling similar offenders.

Evaluations provide important information on program performance and client outcomes that can be used to justify the need and expenditure for the program. They can also determine which programs are most effective for which clients, thereby ensuring better matches between client need and intervention.

An example of an effective monitoring and evaluation technique is the ProDES (Program Development and Evaluation System) model developed through the collaboration of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and the local juvenile court. Since January 1994, ProDES has collected information at disposition, at intake to and discharge from a program, and at 6 months after discharge for 16,000 juvenile cases. ProDES provides continuous feedback on performance to facilitate system planning, program development and improvement, and rational matching of client needs to appropriate services.

Consideration of the Impact on the System and Its Clients

The implementation of accountability principles and practices across the full spectrum of juvenile justice interventions, including services to the victims and communities affected by juvenile crime, will require systemwide transformation. Change must begin with a shift in attitudes and beliefs about the system; accountability must be accepted as a desired outcome, and victims and communities must be viewed as clients of the system. This shift in attitude must then be embodied in all system policies, programs, and services.

First, the juvenile court judge must lead by example by stressing accountability in all dispositions ordered by the court. Second, the court can lead by direction—internally directing court procedures and resources to be consistent with the goal of accountability and externally directing the development and implementation of desired service programs. Finally, the juvenile court judge can lead coordination and education efforts by reaching out to the community and advocating for the development of collaborations to better serve the juvenile justice system's clients.

Because the victim and community have been elevated to the level of system clients, the role of juvenile probation will change significantly. Decisions from intake and diversion through aftercare must incorporate measures to ensure accountability and must equally consider the needs of the juvenile, the victim(s), and the community. In this new capacity, the juvenile probation department must be open to, and even initiate, collaborative efforts with other public, private, and community-based agencies.

In addition, probation departments will be responsible for developing and implementing specialized supervision programs, increasing efforts to collect restitution, and monitoring community service projects. Such initiatives require smaller caseloads than traditional probation supervision. With probation officers already carrying higher than recommended caseloads, this new effort will produce an immediate need for increased staff resources, specialized training and education programs, and review of policies and procedures that promote accountability.1

As collaborations are developed and services provided through private and community programs, the juvenile probation officer's role may expand to include monitoring. Just as the system must hold offenders accountable for their actions, it must hold programs accountable for providing the promised services to youth and for achieving the desired outcomes. Also, with the assimilation of new roles and duties, juvenile courts and probation departments might benefit from collaborating with universities or other research entities to assist in meeting the demand for staff training and education and for monitoring and evaluating programs.

The benefits reaped by juvenile courts and probation departments are simple, yet quite significant. The system will be providing more effective services to all its clients, including offenders, victims, and local communities. For example:

  • A juvenile offender who receives services through the juvenile justice system should leave with a sufficient understanding of the harm caused by his or her delinquent behaviors and a sense of responsibility for the consequences of future actions. An offender should also leave more capable of being a law-abiding, productive member of society.

  • Victims of juvenile crime will benefit from opportunities to participate in the justice process and from programs that meet some of their financial and emotional needs.

  • The community also has much to gain as a client of the juvenile justice system. Community service programs bring needed volunteer resources to communities; hold the potential to increase the public's knowledge of, and involvement with, the juvenile justice system; and can build strong bonds between youth and community that will enhance public safety.
1 For a description of the basic principles of juvenile probation and practical advice on implementing those principles, probation professionals should refer to OJJDP's Desktop Guide to Good Juvenile Probation Practice (NCJ 128218), a copy of which is available at no charge from the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, referenced in the "For Further Information" section.


Focus on Accountability: Best Practices for Juvenile Court and ProbationJAIBG Bulletin   ·  August 1999