About This Issue
Probation is the most common intervention in juvenile court when youth are adjudicated delinquent. And while probation agencies are charged with achieving positive youth development and accountability, probation orders often make it difficult for young people to succeed and thrive in their communities.
When youth are placed on probation, they must comply with boilerplate “conditions of probation.” These conditions rarely align with a young person’s strengths, interests, and needs—nor do they vary by the young person’s age and developmental status. In some places, youth are required to manage more than 30 conditions of probation. That is a near impossible number of rules for them to recall, especially given that youth are often left to navigate these conditions on their own, receiving little guidance or support from probation officers and other system actors. This sets children up to fail, leading to costly and unnecessary placement in detention. This insidious system disproportionately impacts youth of color, who are far more likely than their white peers to face confinement or other severe consequences for violating probation.
In short, though intended to lead youth toward success, probation only exacerbates a cycle of system-involvement that is nearly impossible for young people to escape. Unwieldy and unfair conditions of probation further entrench racial disparities and cause lasting harm in the lives of children, including removal from their homes, families, and communities.
Violations of probation orders can dramatically impact the lives of youth in the delinquency system. They may result in post-disposition charges for contempt, revocation of probation, transfer to the adult criminal legal system, or placement in detention.Youth defenders have an obligation to advocate for achievable conditions of probation at disposition that reflect a child’s strengths, circumstances, and challenges and that are cognizant of a child’s maturity and development.
If, however, a child is alleged to have violated a condition of probation, the defender must zealously defend against those allegations and, if necessary, mitigate the child’s mistakes. Despite the oftentimes low burden of proof, defenders must consider challenging every violation allegation. When a child is found to be in violation of a probation condition, defenders have the opportunity and obligation to argue against commitment and fight for more appropriate community-based services or even for case closure.
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