Each year, more than 10,000 teens aged 15 and younger are arrested by police. They begin their journey into the criminal justice system with a visit to an intake officer at the Department of Probation. Increasingly, the trip stops there. In a remarkable turnaround, the probation department has become an off-ramp for thousands of teens each year, diverting them away from court and into short-term community programs.
The number of teens aged 15 and under whose cases have been “adjusted” and closed by the probation department increased 47 percent between 2009 and last year, and has more than doubled since 2006. In 2011, 4,564 teens under age 16 arrested in New York City—38 percent of the total—had their cases closed through adjustment, up from 3,107 two years earlier.
Today, the city funds nearly 30 community-based adjustment programs, serving just over 800 young people as of June. The terms of an adjustment can include restitution for victims and the completion of one of these special programs, which involve community service or other projects. Adjustment periods typically last 60 days, though they can be extended to four months with a judge’s approval. If a young person meets the terms, he or she walks away from the case with no need to go deeper into the justice system. And that’s exactly the point: Especially for low-level offenders, explains Deputy Commissioner of Probation Ana Bermudez, involvement with the justice system often does more harm than good. “There is significant research that youth outcomes actually deteriorate with court processing, particularly when you’re looking at low-risk youth,” she says. “You interfere with those supports that were making them low-risk in the first place.”
Studies indicate that young people who are arrested and taken to court—even a juvenile or family court—are somewhat more likely to increase, rather than decrease, problem behavior, compared to those who aren’t put through the system. One meta-analysis of 29 random-assignment studies, covering more than three decades of research, found that court system involvement not only failed to deter future criminal activity, but often increased its likelihood.
So far, the probation department says its adjustment programs are getting positive results. Ninety percent of diverted youth make it through their assigned program, say officials. Of those, 86 percent are not rearrested within the following six months, during which their cases are tracked.
Administrators at the Department of Probation set the goal of increasing adjustment rates several years ago as one more step in their work to keep kids at home rather than sending them to juvenile lockups. So far, the changes have been achieved not through a legal overhaul of the department, but rather through a series of small yet significant tweaks to procedural policy. Officials are giving probation staff more training on intake procedures, and teaching them to tailor their recommendations to the risk level that the youth presents.
After a young person’s arrest, a probation officer reviews the charges and talks to the people involved to try to get a sense of the severity of the situation, the youth’s home and school life, and any other relevant factors. Probation officers use a tool known as an RAI, or Risk Assessment Instrument, to evaluate the risk of allowing the youth to leave rather than placing them in detention.
Bermudez says that some kids deemed low-risk by the RAI are still sent to detention for what she characterizes as “system barriers”—situations where there’s no other safe and supervised place for a young person to go—but the goal is to keep as many low-risk youth as possible out of institutions. In 2011, the department adjusted 68 percent of youth deemed low-risk on the RAI.
In order for an intake officer to refer a young person for adjustment, probation officials must get the consent of the victim of the offense. Bermudez says the department has sought to increase the willingness of common complainants, beginning with major department stores like Macys and H&M, which now consent to adjustment for young people who’ve been arrested for stealing merchandise, as long as they complete the department’s online anti-shoplifting program. Between January and July of 2011, shoplifting offenses made up a full 16 percent of all youth arrests, officials say.
Other changes have been achieved simply by retraining intake officers, says Bermudez. In the past, if a young person already on probation was arrested on a new charge, officers automatically denied adjustment. Now however, if there is no public safety threat, staff are instructed to consider whether the underlying issues causing the young person’s behavior are already being addressed through their probation. If appropriate, probation can continue or enhance those services, rather than send the youth to court.
Unofficial policy also used to dictate that if a complainant couldn’t be reached by 3 p.m. on the day of an arrest, a young person could not be adjusted. Now, officers are instructed to wait at least 24 hours before making their decision. Delores Hunter, a supervising probation officer in the Bronx Family Court Intake Services Unit, maintains that parents seem happier with the new methods. “We often meet parents who are either frustrated with their child for being arrested, or frustrated with a system that they feel arrested their child for no reason. But when they hear that we empathize with them and are able, when appropriate, to offer them adjustment services that will allow their child to get the help they need with minimal disruption, the parents leave more grateful than angry.”
Hunter says that at the while initially there were some reservations among intake staff at the probation department, most of her colleagues now believe the changes are for the better. “It is refreshing to be able to stand up and say that we, the Department of Probation, are trying to offer children an opportunity to stay out of the system, and really mean it,” says Hunter.
Alec Hamilton is a former reporter for Child Welfare Watch, a news producer at WNYC New York Public Radio, and a graduate of the masters in urban policy program at the New School. She was a 2011 New York Times Institute Education Journalism Fellow. She moved to Brooklyn from New Orleans in 2009.
Updated: February 08 2018