Desktop Guide to
Good Juvenile Probation Practice
Teens walking along railroad tracks in the woods

Effective responses


Accountability should not be a token term that is synonymous with punishment. Holding youth accountable in the juvenile justice system does not require punishment or a punitive approach.

Accountability is achieved when a youth understands and takes responsibility for how their actions affect others and themselves. This can be a motivator for positive behavior change.

Approaches to ensure accountability should be developmentally informed (youth are more focused on rewards than consequences) and focus on all interactions that the youth will have with the system, including police and court interactions. Youth that perceive the system as unfair will be less likely to have positive responses to juvenile justice intervention and lead to recidivism. By incorporating approaches that are fair, respectful, and inclusive, youth are more likely to feel like they are part of the decision-making process. When youth feel like they are part of a fair, inclusive process, they are more likely to engage in programs that can hold them accountable, while also reducing their risk of further involvement in the juvenile justice system.[1]

Restorative justice is a strength-based approach to constructive accountability that focuses on making the youth aware of how their actions have affected the harmed party and the community, and that their behavior was not just “against the state.”[2] This approach also helps the youth to reintegrate back into the community and build important developmental skills, such as understanding how their behaviors affect others. Examples of restorative justice approaches include mediation between the youth and harmed party (also known as restorative justice conferences), community service, and restitution.[3]

Role playing

One jurisdiction uses a role playing exercise in order to help teach youth about accountability and how their actions affect others. The philosophy is that the behavior is a stone being thrown in water and that it creates 3 ripples. These ripples are the harmed party, the family of the harmed party and the family of the person who caused the situation, and the community.

For example

Scenario: A teenager takes a car for a joy ride and crashes into a telephone pole, causing the power to go out.

Ripple 1: The person whose car was stolen now has no way to get to work.

Ripple 2: That person’s children can’t make it to school, other activities, and doctors appointments and they suffer due to their parent’s lack of income from them not being able to make it to work. The teenager’s parents have to take multiple days off of work to attend court and are embarrassed and disappointed of their child’s behavior. They were also worried about the youth’s wellbeing after being in an accident.

Ripple 3: People in the community don’t have power in their homes. Their food spoils and vulnerable people, such as young children and the elderly, are subject to more risk, such as falling and illness due to a lack of air conditioning/heating or spoiled food.

A second scenario could include the youth being the harmed party instead of the offender in order to give them a different perspective.

Responding to youth behavior

Research indicates that an overreliance on control and compliance monitoring is less effective in promoting long-term positive behavior change and reducing recidivism.

Community supervision, practices should not rely on compliance monitoring, but focus on building positive relationships with youth and families to promote positive behavior change.[4]

However, it is still imperative that JPOs respond to non-compliant behaviors, and, therefore, it is vital that they do so in ways that support positive relationships and positive behavior change.[5]

  • Step 1: Respond as immediately as possible so that the youth associates the behavior with the response.
  • Step 2: Have a conversation with the youth about your concerns to understand why the youth is not complying
  • Step 3: If the non-compliance warrants it, try to connect with (and convene) individuals who help care for and influence the youth to help problem solve.
  • Step 4: Work with the youth and support system to devise a plan to help them get back on track
  • Step 5: Plan potential responses with the youth

Graduated responses Incentives and sanctions

Graduated responses are effective tools for responding to technical violations.

Detention and other harsh responses are not appropriate for technical violations, and graduated responses allow JPOs to respond to these behaviors in ways that are informed by adolescent development. By understanding that youth respond well to incentives, JPOs can work with youth using effective responses instead of working against youth with punitive responses.

In order for graduated responses to be as effective as possible, it is important to ensure that all youth are getting the opportunity for this response, regardless of race or other demographic factors. By documenting the responses (incentives and sanctions) given to each youth, JPOs can determine if effective responses are applied equitably and adjust practice where needed. Equity is imperative for all parts of probation, and the most effective responses should be available to all youth.

Evidence shows that youth behavior change is more positive influenced by incentives rather than sanctions. With this in mind, probation officers can create or take part in a graduated response program in order to appropriately respond to youth behavior and to combat the practice of punishments being too harsh for the behavior. Graduated responses can include both incentives and sanctions that are used in response to youth behavior.[6] Any response to youth behavior should depend on the severity of the behavior and the risk of recidivism that has been identified by a validated risk assessment and other information about the youth.[7]

Graduated Responses Toolkit cover
The Center for Children’s Law and Policy has created a Graduated Responses Toolkit that can be used to implement these programs with help from administrators.

If a youth that you are serving has been doing well and is completing all the requirements of probation it is appropriate to reward with an incentive. On the other hand, if a youth is struggling to meet the requirements of the court, different levels of sanctions can be imposed in order to hold youth accountable without using a detention center. Incentives and sanctions are most effective when used together,[8] and a high ratio of rewards to sanctions has been shown to be a good predictor for success.[9]

A ratio of 4 incentives to every 1 sanction is often recommended while recognizing:[10]

  • Achieving a 4:1 incentives to sanctions ratio will not always be possible
  • 4:1 does not mean 4 rewards have to be given before any sanction is delivered

Some tips for creating an incentive system are:[11]

  • Determine incentives and rewards to be used
  • Determine incentivized behavior (sobriety, court attendance, therapy attendance, etc.)
  • Assign values to behaviors and rank by importance
  • Develop reward menu (can include tangible things and curfew extensions, free day off of court, etc.)
  • Assign values to rewards and rank by importance (think about how much time or effort desired behaviors will take)
  • Create written policy for incentive program including goals and benchmarks, implementation, and tracking and process

Graduated response programs vary depending on who is using and developing them, but research shows that effective graduated response programs are certain, immediate, proportionate, fair, and made for individuals.[12] The Center for Children’s Law and Policy[13] has created a Graduated Responses Toolkit that can be used to implement these programs with help from administrators.

Visit NCJFCJ's juvenile sanctions for more information

Examples of incentives

  • Verbal praise and recognition (“You did a great job,” “You’re right,” “Thank you,” “You’re such a hard worker,” “You’re so responsible”)
  • Written praise
  • Early case closure
  • Curfew extension
  • Decrease community service hours
  • Youth input for next meeting date and time
  • Lunch/Dinner with JPO
  • Healthy Snacks
  • Pizza
  • Movie Tickets
  • CDs and DVDs
  • Books
  • Age-appropriate activities such as ice skating, concert tickets, etc.
  • Museum admission
  • Tickets to sporting events
  • YMCA, gym membership, or yoga classes
  • Bowling
  • Athletic gear
  • Swimming
  • Manicure/pedicure
  • Hair salon/barber
  • Clothing items
  • School supplies
  • Phone cards
  • Coffee mugs/water bottles
  • Planners or calendars
  • Arts and craft supplies

Examples of sanctions

Engaging families in reinforcing positive behavior can go a long way in ensuring that positive behavior change persists after case closure. Sometimes parents won’t always know how to respond to negative behavior. Here are some ideas for parents to use at home:

  • Verbal reminders/redirection
  • Verbal warning
  • Extra chores
  • No friends over/going to visit friends
  • Take phone away
  • No going out to movies, shopping, etc.
  • No video games or TV
  • No computer
  • Restrict curfew
  • Cannot leave the house
  • Write apology letter
  • No driving
  • Go to bed early

Track incentives and sanctions administered to each youth to help understand your practices. You can use this to track progress with youth and to determine if your department is administering incentives and sanctions equitably.[14]

Source: Sanctions and Incentives: A Colorado Probation Perspective, (presentation, Conference on Administrative Sanctions and Incentives in Probation Supervision, New Orleans, LA, Dec 12, 2012, Eileen Kinney and Becky Ney

Accountability scenarios

JPOs were asked how they would respond to several scenarios and to provide examples of bad responses.

Scenario 1

A youth with moderate risk for reoffending has been put on your caseload for multiple theft charges. The youth has been attending counseling and has been making great progress according to the service provider, but they are still struggling with some basic supervision rules. They don’t always show up for check-ins and they miss school and curfew regularly.

How would you respond and why?

“I would sit down with the youth and do a timeline or situational analysis for each one of those scenarios. The youth and I would try and find a common theme for the situations and then review or learn a skill to apply. We may also do a decision balance to help tip the importance scale.”
“I would meet with the youth and discuss what they are experiencing. How/what do they identify as barriers to them presenting for check-ins, school and curfew. I feel it important to understand why the behavior is occurring before we can figure out how to address it. Then, I’d work to set small goals with the youth to increase their attendance and curfew. I’d include the caregiver in this conversation as much as possible and provide incentives when appropriate. I’d commend the youth for attending counseling and if he/she is open to it, include the counselor on our conversations as well.”
“I would have a conversation with the youth and try to identify the barriers on why they aren’t making their check in’s, school, and curfew. We would talk about what is allowing them to have such great progress with counseling and how we could try to get the same progress in other aspects of their life. We would go over their court order and remind them the importance of keeping in contact with probation as well as attend school and be home. We would also talk about if the behavior continues the response will increase.”
“I would meet with the youth and their parents and reinforce their positive progress and discuss ways to improve areas of concerns. Instead of a weekly check in with my officer, I would try weekly phone check ins. If that is unsuccessful, I would schedule weekly meetings at the youth’s residence until they are ready to make weekly meetings at my office. In regards to school, I would find out if the youth is staying up too late or if transportation is an issue. If it’s determined that the youth is staying up too late to get up for school, I would encourage them to go to bed at a reasonable hour and set their alarm clock a little early to ensure they have enough time to get ready for school. I would remind them the important of complying with their curfew to avoid their curfew being reduced and levels of supervision increased.”
“I would respond by utilizing a BITS intervention. Specifically, I would utilize Decision Making (BITS) so that the youth is able to see the pro and cons of their non-compliant behavior and identify how it would be more beneficial to be compliant with check-ins, curfew, and attending school. I would also explain to youth that should the non-compliant behavior continue, sanctions such as additional community service and an earlier curfew would soon follow. I would also go into detail about other graduated responses such as home-detention and EHM should non-compliance be an on-going issues while also incentivizing the youth by informing them that I would provide him with a weekly snack of their choice (ie: gummy bears) for every week that the youth attends school without missing any classes.”
“I would commend them for their progress with counseling and ask them questions, using MI, about positive changes they are making and behaviors that they need to potentially change. I would review their conditions of supervision and review specific incidents where they missed check-ins, missed school, and broke curfew. I would advise them that continued non-compliance would lead to consequences (I would tell them up front what the consequences could be). After the ‘verbal warning’, I would have them produce strategies to improve in these areas and help them develop a way to implement the most practical strategy.”
“As a graduated response I would begin by placing the offender on home detention and meet with him to discuss the reasons for his lack of compliance. We would complete a structured intervention to identify any skill deficits of the offender. With a moderate risk to reoffend, and his offense being multiple thefts, the protection of the community needs to be addressed. If he failed to adhere to the home detention, or missed school or curfew again, he would be stepped up to electronic home monitoring for two weeks to hold him accountable.”

What would a bad response be?

“Simply telling the youth to do better or giving a sanction without exploring what is happening to cause the non-compliance.”
“A not-as-effective response would be something super punitive or not taking into account the youth’s voice/perspective. For example, just setting a violation hearing without speaking to the youth, or assigning consequences without speaking to the youth, caregiver or counselor about what’s been going on.”
“A ‘bad’ response would be not acknowledging the progress they have made in counseling. Youth often only get talked to about the bad they are doing in their life and rarely get acknowledgement for their good efforts. Bringing them in to only talk about negative could ruin the relationship and make them give up on doing well in anything.”
“To automatically set a probation violation hearing without discussing what lead to the youth’s struggles would impede their progress and their motivation to rectify their problem areas.”
“To immediately sanction the youth with home-detention or EHM without also utilizing an intervention that also helps the youth to analyze their behavior that is leading to said response.”
“A bad response may be to immediately place the offender in secure detention and file a Violation of Probation Allegation against them. The counselor stated they had been very compliant and making “great progress” in treatment. It appears with the use of a graduated response, the offender may have the ability to continue treatment in the community and not need to be placed outside of the home.”

Scenario 2

A youth on your caseload with drug charges has an addiction to prescription opiates. They have successfully completed an inpatient rehab and have had clean drug screens for about 3 months. Yesterday’s drug screen however, showed a return to use.

How would you respond and why?

“I would sit down with the youth to do a situational analysis on what lead to their use. We would then talk about the skills they have learned in treatment and replay the situation and see where they could apply it. I would consult with their counselor about the UA and see how treatment could support the youth.”
“Meet with the youth and discuss how/why the relapsed occurred. Maybe complete a behavior analysis chain or timeline to try to identify triggers / decision points with the youth and discuss with the youth how to / what they need so that they don’t relapse again. Discuss getting back involved with outpatient, or attending support meetings to help.”
“We would have a conversation again and talk about what their drug prevention plan was and try to help them identify what caused the relapse and remind them of how well they were feeling when they were providing clean UA’s. Helping them identify triggers to their use will hopefully help them continue to strive for sobriety. I would also remind them that relapse is common and not to be too hard on themselves, I remind them they are strong enough to get clean again and help support them along the way.”
“I would have an in-depth conversation with the youth to find out what triggered the recent use. I would collect another urinalysis in two weeks, and I would explain to the youth if the level increased. We would discuss it and look at revisiting drug and alcohol counseling if needed.”
“If the youth is not enrolled in outpatient, I would immediately enroll them in outpatient D&A. I would also utilize an EPICS intervention in the form of a behavior chain in order to help the youth identify how their thoughts and feelings leads to their actions. I would also give the youth a positive affirmation regarding the length of time that they were able to give clean drug screens in order to re-affirm to the youth that they have the ability to maintain their sobriety and that this scenario was hopefully a one-time mistake. I would also utilize a moderate sanction in the form of 10 additional hours of community service so that they understand that more aggressive sanctions such as EHM or Hartman will soon follow if the youth continues to test dirty.”
“Due to the seriousness of an addiction to opiates, I would require the offender to immediately enroll in an intensive outpatient treatment group and attend 12 step meetings. They would be required to sign a release of information and be screened at each treatment group. I would work closely with the treatment team to monitor their stages of change and progress. If they failed another drug screen, I would take them back before their judge.”

What would a bad response be?

“Simply setting a violation hearing for the violation and not exploring the reason behind the relapse.”
“Having a reactive response—assuming one use means the youth is back where they started or going to fail and responding from that lens. Setting violation without speaking to the youth/caregiver about what’s been going on. Setting a violation without addressing the treatment need.”
“A bad response would be over reacting and immediately putting them back in treatment. Youth must be able to face the triggers that cause them to use or they will never build up skills to avoid those situations or find new pro social ways to deal with them.”
“To assume the worst and promptly put the youth immediately back into treatment without discussing circumstance could cause the youth to increase use.”
“To immediately sanction the youth to juvenile residential facility. This is bad because it is usually expected that most addicts will relapse and this current youth would benefit more from additional treatment then a sanction to a juvenile facility.”
”A bad response would be to provide a minimal intervention with the offender or to immediately violate their probation. Opiates are a serious and dangerous addiction, which can lead to death during any relapse. To utilize a minimal consequence could be deadly for the individual and they must be held accountable. Also, to immediately violate their probation and place them in secure detention would do nothing to address the addiction or provide treatment. Using a treatment and competency development approach requires each situation of the offender and their stages in the recovery process to be addressed on an individual basis.”

Follow up to scenario 2

Since that first failed drug screen, the youth has not been able to pass a drug screen in over a month and they haven’t been attending 12-step meetings, which is a condition of their probation.

How would you respond and why?

“I would consult with their treatment provider to see how they can support the youth. I would again explore the situation with the youth to see what is leading to the change. We would do a decision balance for the behavior and explore how their current behavior will impact their future. I would also consult with the family to see how they can be supporting the youth better.”
“Again, discuss the barriers around not attending the 12 step meeting. What’s the environment of the 12 step meeting? Have they tried and it was uncomfortable? Transportation? Times of day? Age of attendees? Religious beliefs? Depending on these answers, we could create a plan of attendance or something else. Ideally, this conversation is had in the beginning to sidestep potential noncompliance. If there were significant barriers in the beginning, we would address the use in a different way. I’d also want to know how the youth is maintaining sobriety without the meetings – are they white-knuckling it? Are they participating in something else that works better for them? Then have a future focused conversation depending on the answer to that.”
“Now would be the time that I would look at bringing them to court and asking for a new evaluation to take place and took look at other treatment options. I would have continued to remind them over the month that this was going to happen if the use continued and if they continued to not attend their outpatient program. I think after a month of constant use and avoidance of treatment that a more serious response is needed to get the youth’s attention.”
“I would meet with the youth and remind them of their positive progress and the important of attending 12-step meetings to ensure all probation conditions are successfully completed.”
“Because they passed their clean date drug screen, I wouldn’t sanction the youth too aggressively, but I believe a sanction such as home detention would be warranted because they aren’t following treatment recommendations and this isn’t the first warning the youth has received and would be a graduated response to the previous sanction of community service.”
“I would meet with the offender and utilize a structured intervention to weigh the cost and benefits of attending the 12-step programs. I would also review with them the non-negotiables and court order, reaffirming they are required to attend the program. We would discuss any barriers to their attendance.”

What would a bad response be?

“Setting a violation hearing or giving sanctions without exploring behavior.”
“A bad response would be to ignore the use after a month. The risk of the youth slipping farther in to abuse will increase and the youth’s health and well-being is in jeopardy. We can’t ignore a month worth of use and treatment avoidance.”
“It would be bad to only respond with a discussion-based intervention such as BITS or EPICS because the youth has already had those meetings and is in treatment but is not following throw. At this point, it would be important to utilize consequences as well as cognitive behavioral interventions.”
“A bad response would be to overreact and violate their probation. They have obviously made progress in their treatment and ability to remain sober. There may be an underlying reason as to why they are not attending, i.e. childcare, employment, lack of transportation.”

Scenario 3

A youth that is high risk has been put on your caseload for a violent offense. They have been doing really well so far, but they recently got into a physical altercation with another student at school. The youth claims that the other student hit him first.

How would you respond and why?

“I would consult with the school to make sure I have information from both sides. I would sit down with the youth and have them go through a situational analysis to explore what lead up to the altercation. We would look for common themes with this incident and what they are on supervision for. We should have a target behavior identified and we will talk about how the youth keeps ending up in high risk situations. I would relate this behavior to the need for a referral to Aggression Replacement Training. I would also introduce “Thinking Ahead” from ART early and ask them to walk through it for that situation. I would leave the youth with an assignment to think about how this behavior will continue to impact their future and where they could have made different decisions.”
“A meeting to discuss what happened—a timeline or BAC to identify triggers, decision points and choices. Discussion around what to do in the future when a situation happens with a peer. Depending on this conversation we could intervene in different ways; he/she might benefit from anger management classes, maybe they need some mentorship, maybe something happened that had the kid on edge that day and they need a deeper level of treatment, maybe they were intoxicated/high and weren’t thinking clearly and we need to address that. Conversation about the why should always happen before anything else.”
“I would respond by having a conversation with the youth and doing a mini timeline with them about the incident. I would help them identify internal and external triggers and talk about how they can try to avoid situations like these in the future. I would remind them of how good they have been doing so far and how that has made them feel. We would talk about why we don’t want to go backwards and set action steps for how to move forward and move on from this day. I would do this because again acknowledging the progress and making them feel good about what positives they have in their life is likely to encourage further positive responses.”
“I would meet with the youth and their parents and school officials to determine what happen. If not school suspension occurred, I would have the youth write an apology letter to the school and the student. I would sign the youth up for work crew and look at ART. IF the youth was not currently involved in a counseling program, I would explain to the youth if there are any more physical confrontations I would set an official probation violation hearing.”
“Because of the serious nature of the offense they are being supervised for and the youth’s current pattern to continue to engage in violent behavior, it would be best to utilize both a cognitive behavioral intervention as well as more aggressive sanction such as home detention or EHM in order for the youth to understand that physical altercations can lead to new charges and this it ultimately isn’t worth it for the youth to engage in these situations. I most likely would utilize the BITS exercise of “Overcoming Automatic Responses” (to better help the youth identify a new and prosocial response rather than the antisocial response) while also putting the youth on home detention.”
“I would respond by contacting the school to gather as much information, including if there was video footage. I would meet with the offender to discuss the situation and utilize a structured intervention to review their thinking traps, automatic responses or problem solving skills. They would also be required to attend the Aggression Replacement Training group to address his moral reasoning and anger control. If he instigated the fight, I would place him on Electronic Home Monitoring for two weeks to hold him accountable.”

What would a bad response be?

“Setting a violation hearing or talking “at” the youth about the behavior without exploring why it happened.”
“Sometimes formal violations in front of the judge need to happen to let the court know the status of the case, or because we’ve had multiple conversations like the ones noted above and behavior isn’t improving. Violations, however, are rarely a first step. Talking to the youth, their caregiver and support people are generally a first step and then interventions and strategies are determined from there. We find kids are less entrenched that way, and then WHEN/IF a violation hearing is set, they are taken more seriously because they are infrequent. Sometimes kids have legitimate reasons why something occurred, and it’s our job to figure that out—not to assume there was malicious intent and provide punishment.”
“A ‘bad’ response in my opinion would be over reacting to this incident. Scheduling a PV or giving the youth a consequence for one incident could derail their previous progress.”
“I think rushing to set a probation violation just because the youth is listed as a high risk, without all the facts is a disservice to the youth. I think it’s important to work with the youth and family in exploring informal sanction with accountability before setting a formal violation.”
“To sanction the youth without also utilizing a cognitive behavioral intervention.”
“A bad response would be to sanction or violate their probation without completing an investigation at the school. The offender may have been defending himself, which he has the right to do.”


  1. National Research Council 2013. Reforming juvenile justice: A developmental approach. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  2. National Research Council 2013. Reforming juvenile justice: A developmental approach. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  3. National Research Council 2013. Reforming juvenile justice: A developmental approach. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  4. The National Center for Juvenile Justice (1991). The Desktop Guide to Good Juvenile Probation Practice. Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice.
  5. Thomas, D., Torbet, P., and Deal, T. (2011). Implementing Effective Case Management Strategies: A Guide for Probation Administrators. Technical Assistance to the Juvenile Court Bulletin. Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice.
  6. Center for Children’s Law and Policy. (2016). Graduated Responses Toolkit: New Resources and Insights to Help Youth Succeed on Probation. Washington, DC.
  7. Seigle, E., Walsh, N., Weber, J. (2014). Core principles for reducing recidivism and improving other outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system. New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center.
  8. Center for Effective Public Policy. (2001). Responding to Probation and Parole Violations. (National Institute of Corrections C97CO4GIE2). Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections. (pp. 65).
  9. Wodahl, E.J., Garland, B., Culhane, S.E., & McCarthy, W.P. (2011). Utilizing Behavioral Interventions to Improve Supervision Outcomes. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 38, 386.
  10. Lowe, N., Garland, B., Wodahl, E. (2013). Use of Incentives and Sanctions to Promote Compliance with Supervision Conditions during Reentry: An Implementation Strategy. National Reentry Resource Center. Webinar.
  11. Schiller, W.L., Pearce, J., & Jones, L.R. (2019). Individualizing Responses to Motivate Behavior Change in Youth: A Four-Pronged Approach. Reno, NV: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
  12. Lemon, M., and Pennucci, A. (2018). Students Experiencing Homelessness in Washington’s K–12 Public Schools: 2016–17 Trends, Characteristics and Academic Outcomes. Schoolhouse Washington, a project of Building Changes: Seattle, WA.
  13. Center for Children’s Law and Policy. (2016). Graduated Responses Toolkit: New Resources and Insights to Help Youth Succeed on Probation. Washington, DC.
  14. Seigle, E., Walsh, N., Weber, J. (2014). Core principles for reducing recidivism and improving other outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system. New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center.