United States faces a dilemma. It needs to decide how to handle juvenile offenders. Currently, with some exceptions, each state and municipality sets its own rules, and the rules vary tremendously. Children as young as eleven years old have been tried and convicted as adults, and the juvenile systems do not always respond effectively to the youth charged to its care. Probation practices also vary widely. When our criminal system cannot decide whether to charge many juveniles as juveniles or adults it should not be surprising that probation practices vary as well.
Geraghty (2002) gives an example of how these difficulties affect society. He reports defending a thirteen-year-old boy from a murder charge, trying to keep the case in juvenile court. However, the community felt that they were under attack by youthful “super-predators,” and prosecutors identified this young boy as part of that problem. The system, fearful that the juvenile system would be inadequate and that the young man would be released back into the society with insufficient safeguards, successfully argued for the boy to be tried as an adult (Geraghty, 2003).
Geraghty (2002) sees the problem of more and more youths being tried as adults as an indication that the juvenile system does not function well. He believes that interventions used in response to juvenile crime are too superficial and that they do not meet the individual needs of the youth involved. Meanwhile, society worries that these youth will get a slap on the wrist and be returned to their community to offend again. They see juvenile probation programs as ineffective, allowing youths to re-offend and leaving the community unprotected.
Geraghty (2002) argues that communities, the courts, and the correctional institutions should plan their reactions based on research and that the current programs in place should be systematically evaluated to see what works and what does not work when it comes to preventing recidivism, the ultimate goal of probation. He recognizes need to balance the needs for public safety and the need to recognize that juvenile justice involves youth who are sometimes little more than children (Geraghty, 2003).
One of the difficulties in forming a plan to truly rehabilitate youthful offenders is that little systematic research has been done. In 2001, the Texas legislature attempted to determine the number of youth in their probation system who had mental health needs. They found that they could not determine the number. There are 168 different juvenile probation programs in Texas. They are not united under any kind of state program, and each probation program used its own system for assessing the needs of the youths under their probationary supervision.
When the legislature talked to the state mental health system, they were told that they were under-funded and could not provide services for everyone needing them. In addition, the rules required that the person want to receive mental health assistance. They were told that the juvenile offenders most likely to receive services were those involved in some kind of violence, particularly domestic or assault of a teacher. Many of these students were enrolled either in special education or an alternative education program, and were placed in facilities for juvenile offenders because there were limited spaces for juveniles in need of residential mental health treatment. The juveniles did not receive the needed treatment while incarcerated and often did not receive it while on probation. The legislature also noted that the older these juveniles became, the more expensive it became to meet these needs. Many of these youth also had substance abuse problems, and often they were using drugs to self-medicate for mental health problems (Spriggs, 2003).
The Texas legislature was perturbed by these findings and passed a law allowing the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission to pick one screening tool to be used throughout the state so they would at least know the extent of the problem (Spriggs, 2003). They also passed a law requiring that the Texas Council on Offenders with Mental Impairments come up with a plan to improve both mental health services and substance abuse treatment not only for juveniles in the juvenile justice system but for those at risk of becoming so involved. They were directed to evaluate all service options presently available and to consider what local, state or federal regulations might interfere with the establishment of such mental health programs (Spriggs, 2003).
Local police departments are aware of the difficulty of getting mental health services for youth. The legislators found that parents are often advised to call 911 if they have a child or youth whose behavior is out of control because of a mental health-related problem, because the juvenile probation system is the one most likely to get the child in for help. In many communities in Texas, because of limited resources, mental health facilities must prioritize, and often give priority to those referred from the juvenile probation system.
It is significant that the second-largest state in the country was not able to determine how many of its juveniles on probation even had need of such services, and it suggests that major problems exist within many probation programs for juvenile offenders. Texas is just one of fifty states, and in addition, the country has some federal juveniles under probation programs. While there are over 86,000 adults under federal probation, there are also 338 juveniles. Most of them committed crimes on Native American reservations, which come under Federal control (AOUSC, 1997). Thus the issue of how to handle juveniles on probation is a federal as well as a state and local issue.
St. Louis County, Missouri, looked at an innovative way to deal with the issue of juvenile probation. They set their goal as reducing the rate of recidivism. In a program called “Special Probation, they combined surveillance with counseling in an attempt to meet the multiple needs of these offenders. By using electronic monitors, the program can accomplish a number of goals, including enforcing restrictions on activity and determining whether students are attending school when ordered to. The final goal had two points: to protect the community, but also to break the individuals’ involvement with drugs and gangs. The program targeted the most severe problems, not those most likely to be rehabilitated (Lhotka, 1998). The program combines surveillance, ankle-bracelet monitoring along with intensive counseling, substance abuse treatment, and even family therapy. This approach is unfortunately costly and labor-intensive and can only accommodate twenty-eight youth at a time.
In one example reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Lhotka, 1998), probation officers used portable electronic monitors to “read” the ankle bracelets of two students enrolled there. Both were within the school building. But in addition, a third person read as being present, a juvenile offender they had not been able to find for two days. His grandmother had reported him as missing from his home with her the previous Saturday night. Those running the program report that the program prevents incarceration for many of the participants. One year after being in the program, 65% of the participants had remained arrest-free, compared to only 35% of those not in the program. Since the participants in this program were those considered most likely to re-offend, those running the “Special Probation” program, which began in 1992, view the program as a success. They also note that only 33% of those who were placed in residential programs such as Boys Town of Missouri stayed arrest-free (Lhotka, 1998). The participants in the Special Probation program have included gang members, drug dealers, robbers, burglars and thieves.
During the first stage of probation, the participants are under full house arrest. If substance abuse is part of their history, they must participant in frequent drug tests and Brethalyzers. Participants also get help with social skills and anger control therapy (Lhotka, 1998).
In 2004, Florida revised its rules covering every aspect of juvenile law from custody disputes to child abuse to juvenile crime. This was not a compilation of current rules and regulations, but rather adjustments to the current laws. It contains over 6,500 words of detailed fine-tuning (Florida Bar, 2004). While these changes may well have been necessary and important, it also highlights the complicated rules and procedures those dealing with juveniles must follow. Meanwhile, individual municipalities and states, such as St. Louis and Texas, grapple with the practicalities of making juvenile probation do its job of rehabilitating youth and protecting society. It seems likely that Texas will not find the funds necessary to provide the type of program offered in St. Louis, since St. Louis can only accommodate 28 youth at a time. In addition, their approach still does not reach 35% of participants, so it is not the entire answer. Perhaps good research can suggest a way to offer rehabilitative probation to youth in a way that is financially feasible for use with all the youth on probation instead of just a handful.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). 1997. “Federal juvenile corrections in South Dakota.” Federal Probation, March.
Florida Bar. 2004. “Proposed juvenile procedure rules (Notice).” Florida Bar News, October.
Geraghty, Thomas F. 2002. “Securing Our Children’s Future: New Approaches to Juvenile Justice and Youth Violence (Book Review).” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, January.
Lhotka, William C. 1998. “Special Probation Program Monitors Troubled Youths.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 1.
Spriggs, Vicki.2003. “Identifying and providing services to Texas’ juvenile offenders with mental health needs.” Corrections Today, February.