Interrupting the Cycle of Juvenile Delinquency

Each year, thousands of youth enter the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles County.

As the system is currently structured, the majority are ordered "home on probation," which involves regular visits with a probation officer while a youth either lives at home or in a court-ordered "suitable placement" with a relative or in a group home. In more serious cases, a youth can be assigned to more structured, secure probation camps. Whatever the structure, the intention is the same -- rehabilitate the youth, provide them the supervision and treatment they need, and get them back on track.

But are these probation programs working?

To find out, we recently completed a study on a sampling of youth in the probation system in Los Angeles County. Under the umbrella of the Advancement Project, the research was led by the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics at California State University, Los Angeles, with assistance from the USC School of Social Work and Children's Defense Fund-California. The County Departments of Mental Health, Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Office of Education also contributed information to the study.

Working closely with the Los Angeles County Probation Department, our research team tracked 500 randomly selected youth who had exited either a probation camp or suitable placement during 2011. We collected information on these youth a year before they left this placement and for 12 months afterwards to see where they started, how they did while in placement, and how they were doing a year later.

The study found many of these youths - almost a third - cycled right back into the system, and identified some important factors as to why.

The Problems Start Early

Detailed case file notes on the youth in the study documented many unmet needs and challenges, as well as institutional failures that began long before these children entered adolescence.

Where educational data existed for a sub-sample of the youth, the study found an average of eight irregular previous school transitions. Almost 90 percent were missing school credits needed to graduate. By the time these youths entered placement, more than 90 percent had been diagnosed with a mental illness, and 50 percent also had a substance use-related disorder.

Of all youth studied, about 75 percent had cycled unsuccessfully from probation supervision at home, to an unsecured group home or secured probation camp. More than 90 percent had an open probation case when they arrived and two-thirds were in the placement because they had violated the terms of a probation court order.

Family Situations Are Unstable

The study also found that most of these youth had experienced uncertainty, trauma and grief as a result of unstable, and sometimes chaotic, family and community situations. Even using a conservative estimate to gauge family difficulty, the numbers still showed that 60 percent of the youth's families had received public assistance and almost 40 percent had other family members with substance abuse problems.

More than 65 percent had parents or siblings who had been incarcerated, and about 20 percent had gang-involved family members. An initial data match showed that at least some of these youth (16 percent) also had open cases with DCFS, with each averaging 8-10 referrals to the child protection system.

What this tells us is that their problems often started early, when help and community services - if identified and provided - could have a real impact.

The Return Home Can Be Tough

With unstable family situations and high rates of community violence, post-probation life prospects are not much better. Although the study shows that most made some progress while living in structured situations like group homes or camps, returning to the same family and community conditions, without active support and help along the way, often led back to old habits.

A year after these youth left placement in 2011, one-third had a new juvenile arrest and 20 percent had the charges sustained. Not surprisingly, the young people who had more family support, educational opportunities or a job were more likely to stay out of the system. Those without much support from family, school or community found it much more difficult to hold on.

Thus, it makes no sense to continue putting these youth back into the same situations, without additional support, and then expect different outcomes.

Stop the Cycle

The study provides further evidence that while locking up youth who get off track can provide some short-term structure and stability, it doesn't resolve long-term issues. We learned a lot from this study about the kinds of support that kept two-thirds of these youth from cycling back into the system.

Youth are resilient and can learn if the adults around them show the way. This will require some re-engineering of county systems to support data sharing and cross-departmental collaboration, and more incentives for public-private partnerships so that all youth coming out of County Probation have relationships with community organizations and faith-based groups that can help them and their families negotiate the challenges of reentry, make sure they continue counseling and medications, and enroll in academic or vocational programs.

We know what to do to interrupt the cycle - we just need the will to move it forward.