Jul 5, 2005
Over the past ten years, probation departments across the state of California have undertaken five major initiatives aimed at juvenile offenders and at-risk youths. Although these initiatives were concomitant with reductions in juvenile arrests and other positive outcomes, we cannot definitively attribute such observed statewide trends to these initiatives.
Over the past ten years, county probation departments across the state of California have undertaken a number of major initiatives aimed at juvenile offenders and at-risk youths. These initiatives were part of a system-wide "sea change" from a focus on suppression, enforcement, and monitoring of youthful offenders to an emphasis on families and on rehabilitative and therapeutic approaches. While the importance of these efforts had been acknowledged, there had been no integrated description of these initiatives; nor had a broad review of the potential effect of this "sea change" on youth outcomes been examined. In 2005, the Chief Probation Officers of California asked RAND to help fill these information gaps.
Five major initiatives have affected probation departments in California during the past decade.
Determining the effectiveness of statewide initiatives on statewide youth recidivism and other measures is not straightforward. Such an endeavor is difficult for a variety of reasons. We do not have the opportunity to "hold everything else constant" to measure the effects of such changes. Many other changes relevant to youths' lives have occurred over the past decade in California, including major economic changes in the state, immigration policies, and perceptions of personal safety. Although we cannot draw firm conclusions regarding the effect of initiatives on outcomes, we note the temporal proximity between initiatives and outcomes that might suggest how the initiatives affected youths and their families.
Juvenile arrests and incarcerations in California have fallen over the past ten years, and teen pregnancies have dropped. The number of youths living below the poverty level has gone down, and high school graduation rates have increased. These positive measures are concomitant with probation initiatives, although California's trend on many measures mirrors nationwide trends, suggesting that something other than these initiatives may be at work. For example, the economy in California and nationwide (as measured by unemployment rates) improved during much of the decade examined. However, on certain measures, such as arrest rates and teen pregnancy rates, the decline over the past decade has been greater for California youths than for U.S. youths as a whole, suggesting that programs and initiatives in California may be having positive effects beyond the national trends. When we compared California with seven other large states with decentralized probation services, we found that each of these states—with the notable exception of Pennsylvania—experienced reductions in juvenile arrest rates over the past decade. All except Pennsylvania have instigated new initiatives during the decade in attempting to curb juvenile crime, but just as in California, we have not been able to directly link the initiatives to the reduction in arrest rates in any state.
The policy implications of this analysis are limited because we cannot confidently assert that the initiatives under consideration caused changes in juvenile crime and other outcomes across the state. Although we cannot tie statewide outcomes to these initiatives, it is important to note that evaluations of these initiatives have shown that criminal justice outcomes for program participants have generally been better than those for youths in routine probation programming. Such findings indicate the importance of this type of programming for at-risk and probation youths in California.
Our ability to understand how the delivery of different services under these initiatives affects youth justice and non-justice outcomes could be enhanced if better data were available on the types of youths who participated in the programs and the services that they received. With these data we could more definitely point to the program components that seem to make the biggest difference for youths with varying needs.