Incentives That Work for Youth in the Justice System

Incentives That Work for Youth in the Justice System

August 17, 2015 | Jim Moeser, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families

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The individualized nature of the juvenile system stands out in contrast to the relatively restricted and more consistent nature of the adult criminal justice system. In the adult system, similar sentences are ordered for similar offenses, often regardless of what may be significant differences between offenders. On the other hand, wide variances in how we approach individual youth in the juvenile system can lead to legitimate concerns about differential treatment and inequities.

The individualized nature of the juvenile system stands out in contrast to the relatively restricted and more consistent nature of the adult criminal justice system. In the adult system, similar sentences are ordered for similar offenses, often regardless of what may be significant differences between offenders. On the other hand, wide variances in how we approach individual youth in the juvenile system can lead to legitimate concerns about differential treatment and inequities.

This tension between consistency and individualization plays out across many aspects of policy and practice in the juvenile system, including how jurisdictions establish and implement a system of “graduated responses.” Graduated responses are used to reward the growth of pro-social behaviors and skills and to deter, through imposition of consequences, risky behaviors and non-compliant behaviors. On the consequence side of things, the system’s response for non-compliant behavior is too often the use of secure confinement to punish or “teach a lesson.” This punitive measure is done with little regard to the harmful effects of confinement and the poor track record of confinement as a “behavior change” tool. Other, more immediate and incremental consequences can be more effective in addressing behavior concerns as they arise.

More importantly, graduated response systems tend to overlook the most powerful tool in shaping pro-social behavior: recognizing and rewarding the behaviors we want to encourage. But how do we create a system in which responses are consistent across cases yet adaptable enough to meet the individual needs of youth under supervision? Do we have to ensure that each youth is rewarded in the same way for similar behaviors? How do we incorporate what we know works as it relates to making sure we are addressing a youth’s strengths, needs, and responsivity factors—and how do we do that with some fidelity to the underlying principles and processes involved?

The solution to this tension is making sure that the focus of the graduated response approach being implemented is on fidelity to the process, with some attention to general parameters that keep individual practice in the same “ballpark.” A successful and consistent graduated response approach will ensure that incentives and sanctions are derived from best practices and implemented consistently across staff and cases, while at the same time helping staff focus case plans on the most important strengths and needs for each youth. Developing a successful response process provides incentives that (1) can be implemented in a timely fashion; (2) are developmentally appropriate; (3) are integrated with other aspects of the supervision process; (4) can evolve as behaviors change; and (5) provide proportional incentives that gradually shape the desired behaviors.

Rather than a “one size fits all” set of rewards and consequences, a complete graduated response approach will provide staff with training related to underlying behavior-change principles that work with young people; the skills to effectively engage youth and families/caretakers to “buy into” the individual plan; and the resources necessary to support staff implementing the incentives in a cost-effective manner.

Changing the behavior of justice-involved young people requires moving away from a system that only seeks to suppress, or temporarily control, undesirable behaviors toward a more complete strategy that supports the growth of pro-social skills and behaviors that will be sustainable long after the formal period of supervision/probation ends, setting young people up for success and positive contributions to their communities in the future.

Jim Moeser has worked in a variety of juvenile justice leadership and advocacy roles at the state, local, and national level for 40 years. He is currently the Deputy Director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families and serves as the Chair of Wisconsin’s State Advisory Group and Vice-Chair of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice.