Juvenile courts and probation departments play a central role in the administration of juvenile justice in the United States. Thus, the policies and programs advanced by these entities greatly define the Nation's response to juvenile crime.

The extensive and critical roles played by the juvenile court and the probation department clearly reflect the importance of ensuring that accountability is a central factor in court and probation case processing, decisionmaking, program planning, and service delivery.

In the following sections, this Bulletin further details the roles of the juvenile court and probation systems in the administration of juvenile justice; identifies key elements of successful programs, including consistent implementation and evaluation efforts and consideration of the impact of incorporating accountability principles into the juvenile justice system; and describes effective accountability-based community initiatives, including mediation, early intervention, probation, and intensive aftercare programs.

Juvenile Court

The person most directly responsible for the function of the juvenile courts and the administration of juvenile justice is the juvenile court judge (Edwards, 1992). In addition to the traditional judicial capacity, the juvenile court judge has the authority to affect case processing long before and after a formal adjudication hearing. In many jurisdictions, the juvenile court judge is the direct administrator of the juvenile probation department and/or court staff. When operating in this capacity, the juvenile court judge can assure coordination of services between the court and the probation department and may also take on the burden of fiscal management.

The actions and attitudes of the juvenile court judge can also have an indirect impact on the policies and procedures by which other related agencies operate. The juvenile court (i.e., a judge, master, or appointed designee) must ensure that all processes and decisionmaking are carried out in a fair and unbiased manner, that all decisions balance the best interests of the juvenile with the best interests of the victim and community, and that the constitutional rights of all parties are upheld.

The juvenile court judge can further influence the early stages of case processing and information collection by advocating for sufficient staff capacity and staff training programs. These early stages of case processing are of significant concern to a juvenile court judge because the quality of judicial decisionmaking at the adjudication and disposition stages depends upon the quality of preparatory work completed by probation and court staff.

The judiciary also bears the burden and has the privilege of providing leadership to promote the development of resources that will realize society's goals for the juvenile court (Szymanski, Homisak, and Hurst, 1993). The dispositions/sentences ordered by the juvenile court set a precedent for the types of services to be developed and implemented. Also, the judge can serve as a voice to influence local policy decisions, educate the public on the juvenile justice system's process and purpose, and initiate collaborative efforts with other service agencies, private businesses, and community organizations.

Juvenile Probation

Juvenile probation is often called the cornerstone of the juvenile justice system, with 1.76 million delinquency cases handled in 1996 by U.S courts with juvenile jurisdiction (Stahl et al., 1999). Juvenile probation officers had contact with virtually every one of those cases. The responsibilities of probation officers include:

  • Screening most cases to determine if informal or formal processing is warranted (although prosecutors are increasingly making intake/petition decisions).

  • Making detention decisions (approximately 20 percent of juveniles are detained pending adjudication).

  • Preparing presentence investigation reports for juvenile court judges to use in disposition decisions.

  • Supervising more than half a million cases.

  • Delivering aftercare services to juveniles released from secure institutions.

Other responsibilities of probation officers include supervising specialized and intensive caseloads in school settings and community offices and, in some instances, brokering services and monitoring the progress and delivery of services to juveniles assigned to residential and nonresidential community-based programs operated by private providers.

Although juvenile probation is the cornerstone of the juvenile justice system, it is also its "catch basin." Ever since the first juvenile court statistics were compiled (in 1929, using 1927 data), probation supervision has been the overwhelming dispositional choice of juvenile court judges (Torbet, 1996). Probation is the most frequent disposition for all juvenile arrests because:

  • It is limitless: unlike training schools or private providers, probation departments cannot limit or control their intake.

  • It is inexpensive and cost efficient, relative to other sanctions.

  • It is reasonably satisfactory: most juvenile offenders never recidivate (Snyder, 1988).

Through its popularity and the broad array of duties and services it performs, juvenile probation has the power to affect decisionmaking and service delivery at every stage of juvenile justice processing and thereby holds the potential to ensure that accountability is stressed at all points from initial entry through final discharge.

Focus on Accountability

The above descriptions of the fundamental roles of the juvenile court and the probation department illustrate how these agencies hold the key to accessing services within the juvenile justice system. Historically, these services have been focused on the juvenile and the development of rehabilitation plans to help young offenders become productive, law-abiding members of society. However, in maintaining this strict focus on rehabilitation, the system has been criticized for neglecting to impose accountability for the acts already committed.

The system, especially juvenile probation, is often accused of providing only a "slap on the wrist" to offenders rather than truly administering justice. The juvenile courts are portrayed by critics as a revolving door, with youth often rearrested for new crimes while still under court-ordered supervision or in treatment programs.

One reason for this perception of leniency can be traced to juvenile probation officers' high caseloads, which prohibit them from providing anything more than superficial instructions and infrequent contacts. For example, several national standard-setting groups recommend a caseload of 25 clients per probation officer for traditional probation services (National Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1980; National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, 1976). Yet, a 1992 national survey of probation officers found the median caseload to be 41, with an overall range stretching from 2 to 200 clients (Thomas, 1993).

Evaluations of regular probation supervision have not been very encouraging. Peter Greenwood (1996) concluded that "an overworked probation officer who sees a client only once a month has little ability either to monitor the client's behavior or to exert much of an influence over his life." Lipsey (1992) found that for youth with multiple risk factors (e.g., several prior arrests, arrests at an early age, drug or gang involvement, parental problems), "probation as usual" was not an effective option.

These findings, coupled with Martinson's now infamous pronouncement that "nothing works" (1974:25) have caused legislators and Governors to target violent juvenile crime by backloading the system with more secure beds in both the juvenile and adult correctional systems and by beginning to target at-risk youth by frontloading the system with prevention programs. Other recent legislative action has focused on removing violent and chronic offenders from juvenile court jurisdiction, relaxing confidentiality requirements regarding cases of serious and violent offenders handled within the juvenile court, allowing for experimentation with disposition/sentencing options, including blended sentencing between the juvenile and adult justice systems, and/or calling for more active participation of victims in the juvenile justice process (Torbet et al., 1996). However, the majority of youth in the juvenile justice system remain in the community, on probation, where few new resources have been dedicated.

In 1996, 634,100 delinquency cases (or 36 percent of all referrals) were placed on formal or informal probation. Probation was the most severe disposition in 54 percent of all adjudicated cases, representing a 58-percent increase in the number of cases placed on formal probation between 1987 and 1996 (Stahl et al., 1999). Some States have taken recent action to improve the capabilities of the juvenile justice system to effectively handle these youth by incorporating the principles of the "balanced approach" (Klein, 1997). This philosophy requires the system to provide balanced attention to the need for competency development, accountability, and community safety and requires efforts to restore, to the greatest extent possible, the victim and community to their precrime status (Thomas and Torbet, 1997).

Juvenile courts and probation departments, especially those in urban areas, should benefit from JAIBG funding. To do so, they must assume a leadership role in ensuring that accountability principles are fully incorporated into all levels of case processing, decisionmaking, and program development. Effective initiatives must be expanded and new programs implemented to ensure that the court has at its disposal an effective array of graduated sanctions that will allow juveniles to have individualized dispositions that require them to face the consequences of their actions and take measures to rectify the harm they have inflicted.


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