Desktop Guide to
Good Juvenile Probation Practice
Two men talking at a table

Equity in practice

“To center the work around equity, leaders need to go beyond surface solutions and really pay attention to the systemic factors that are producing inequitable results for certain groups.”
—Bill Shepardson, Senior Fellow, The Annie E. Casey Foundation

Projected population change

Population change The U.S. population will grow and become more diverse through mid-century. The juvenile population will continue to grow and become more diverse. The white proportion of the juvenile population ages 10 to 17 is projected to decrease from 53% in 2015 to 37% in 2060, with Hispanic and Latino youth and multi-race youth experiencing the greatest increases.

A dedication to eliminating disparity and promoting equity in juvenile probation practice that is displayed through policy and practice at all levels, from individual probation officers to state administrators, is imperative  to ensuring that youth are getting the best services they need in order to make long term positive behavior change. In this guide we refer to equity as practices that eiliminate disparity and ensure access to opportunities and supports for pro-social development to all youth regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, language, culture, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression (SOGIE) status, abilities, and socioeconomic status.

The overrepresentation and/or disparate treatment of youth in the juvenile justice system is a consistent issue. Youth identified as belonging to specific race/ethnic groups are oftentimes overrepresented at all points in the system from arrest to court referral, probation, and confinement. Overrepresentation and/or disparate treatment is also prevalent for youth based on their sex, language, culture, SOGIE status, abilities, and socioeconomic status. For those youth that identify with more than one of these subpopulations, their chances of disproportionate contact is even higher. There are many different reasons overrepresentation of race/ethnic groups is prevalent, including policing strategies, intake decisions, socioeconomic factors, etc., but it is critical to continually promote equitable treatment and access to the services and supports available in your community. In order to increase equity for all youth that are involved with your department, you must be aware of cultural differences and your own biases in an effort to become culturally competent.


Unrecognized bias can hinder efforts to become more equitable.

Everyone has bias, so it is important to understand what your biases are. Your biases are informed by a wide range of sources including interactions with everyone you meet throughout your life, learned behaviors from your parents, teachers, media reports, etc. Below is some more information about implicit and systemic bias and how to recognize and correct it in order to provide equitable care to youth.


Screenshot of Project Implicit tests
Interactive Implicit Association Tests (IATs) from Project Implicit

Implicit bias refers to the unconscious bias that informs understanding, decision making, and actions in regards to others. This bias can be based on a person’s race, sex, socioeconomic status, SOGIE status, and many more attributes. One common example of this type of bias is unintentionally treating those outside of your race group differently. Evidence suggests that individuals perceive male youth of color as being bigger than they actually are, older than they are, and aggressive.[1] This is extremely worrisome. Not only does this negatively impact youth of color, but the world is becoming less White and more diverse,[2] meaning that this is starting to affect even more youth.


“Racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference.”
Alexander M, “The new Jim Crow”

As a juvenile probation officer, it is also important to understand that bias not only takes place in the minds of individuals, but is embedded in the societal systems that have been built over time, including the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Bias is an inherent feature in policing, court, and correctional practices, just to name a few. Because of this implicit bias, the policies and procedures put into place in the justice system have disparate effects on different populations, such as youth of color and girls. This leads to systemic bias.

Youth of color are policed more heavily[3] and receive more severe punishments, including more arrests, pre-trial detention, and higher rates of being sent to juvenile court instead of diversion practices.[4] This difference in treatment is so prominent that Michelle Alexander[5] has popularized and applied the phrase “The New Jim Crow” to the justice system, specifically referring to mass incarceration. Similarly, systemic bias against girls in the juvenile justice system has also led to the over-policing of status offenses against girls[6] and of offenses that are gender-atypical, such as selling pornography.[7]

These biases are seen in risk assessments.[8][9][10] The static risk factors included in risk assessments, such as neighborhood, educational attainment, and socioeconomic status, are generally more prominent for youth of color, which leads to youth of color receiving higher risk scores, even though the youth may not actually be at a higher risk for reoffending. The irony of this is that these risk factors are often present as a result of systemic bias, creating a cycle. For example, non-White children, especially Black youth, are more likely to grow up with a parent incarcerated, which can lead to financial and other familial struggles that would be indicated on a risk assessment.[11][12]

Systemic bias not only affects the greater criminal justice system but has direct implications for the juvenile justice system. Due to parens patriae, the idea that the juvenile court is responsible for the best interest of the child, the court often makes decisions that are largely discretionary, leading to decisions that are influenced by bias, even though the judge has the best of intentions. One example of this is the presence of judicial paternalism. This bias can often make judges and other justice professionals feel like they have to be more protective of children, particularly girls, in the system.[13] Depending on the person, this bias can lead to more punitive or more lenient treatment.[14]

What can JPOs do to promote equity?

Collect and use data

In 2016, the AECF surveyed probation professionals, most of which reported they rarely discuss racial disparities with peers or review data to understand their practices in relation to equity.

Pie chart highlighting 64%
61% seldom or never discuss racial disparities in their treatment of probation youth with peers and supervisors.
Pie chart highlighting 64%
64% seldom or never review data on racial and ethnic disparities

Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation (2016). Probation practice survey.[15]

Cover of presentation
Download Worksheets for Applying Results Count
Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation

It is important to be able to review who gets placed on probation, the incentives and sanctions administered, the length of time youth spend on probation, who gets services and compare them by demographics to understand if there is equitable supports for pro-social development provided to all youth regardless of their sex, race, ethnicity, language, culture, SOGIE status, abilities, and socioeconomic status.

  • Be sure to enter information you have for each youth’s case timely and  consistently
  • If you have a staff member/group in charge of data, use them as a resource
  • Advocate for consistent review of the departments data

Strategies to practice cultural humility

Consider different communication styles. Youth may interact differently based on various learned behaviors and/or adverse experiences. For instance, youth may avoid eye contact when speaking with you as a result of a traumatic event. The act may not be defiance, but a coping skill they have learned.  

Understand yourself. Think about your behaviors and your communication style. Try to identify where you learned them and how other people may interpret them differently. Try to think about how other people may react to situations if they did not have the same experiences you have had.

Make an ongoing effort to learn about other cultures to help identify new perspectives you would not consider otherwise. You can do this by:

  • Interacting with members of groups you do not belong to and have had other experiences.
  • Attending cultural events in your town such as food festivals.
  • Reading books or watching documentaries about other cultures.
  • Respectfully asking about someone's culture and sharing about your own.

Seek resources on diversity. There is a wealth of information available online.  Also, there are often sessions at professional conferences. You may also advocate for diversity specific training.

Use risk assessment tools that don’t replicate or make racial disparities worse[16]

Don’t only use risk assessments, but pair with other tools that will more accurately help plan how to provide services

Understand the flaws in the juvenile justice system and how they may affect youth

Youth can face bias in the schooling system, resulting in referral to juvenile court. If you think this is happening to a youth in your care, get in touch with the school and advocate for the youth to get equitable educational opportunities.

Do what you can to mitigate these effects: Use diversion practices in order to keep as many youth out of the formal juvenile justice system. Once youth enter the juvenile justice system, they are more likely to have contact with the adult system later in their life.[17]

The AECF included a checklist for juvenile probation agencies on racial and ethnic equity and inclusion in their 2018 report:

Required activity Yes No Status
(if under development)
1. Establish a standing committee, led by one or more high-level administrators, dedicated to examining and addressing racial and ethnic equity.
2. Assign a Racial and Ethnic Equity Coordinator for the department, who serves as a liaison between the racial and ethnic equity committee and the probation department.
3. Recruit respected leaders in communities of color to participate in and help lead the racial and ethnic equity committee.
4. Conduct frequent data analyses, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, to identify possible disparities for each decision point in the juvenile court process, as well as disparities in arrest rates for varying offenses and lengths of stay in detention/ placement, levels of supervision, violations of probation, etc.
5. Provide support and advocacy for parents by employing family navigators, or some form of parent support network, and by establishing a Family Council that reflects the demographics and culture of the youth population being served.
6. Undertake geographic mapping to identify disparities in where youth are being arrested and where programs and services to serve them are located.
7. Regularly measure the relative effectiveness of service providers working with youth of different races and ethnicities (as measured by program completion rates, youth/family surveys and/or subsequent system involvement).
8. Survey youth and family members as well as respected community leaders and top staff of community organizations located in neighborhoods where large numbers of system-involved youth reside to identify service barriers, gaps in culturally responsive programs and services, and other concerns of youth, families and communities of color.
9. Review staff composition to determine whether staff reflect the cultural composition and native languages of probation clientele; refocus hiring practices to address glaring demographic, cultural and linguistic gaps.
10. Implement mentoring, credible messenger or advocate-type programs that utilize staff who are from the communities being served.
11. Implement a staffing process for cases being considered for out-of-home placement that includes a community member from the racial and ethnic equity committee.
12. Develop a racial and ethnic equity plan, overseen by the Racial and Ethnic Equity Coordinator.
13. Provide regular staff training on racial and ethnic equity and disparities and on implicit bias.
14. All policies should include a racial and ethnic equity impact statement.

15. Wherever significant problems and disparities are identified, the racial and ethnic equity committee must take concerted action, including:

  • devise new strategies or practices to address the situation;
  • establish clear quantitative goals for selected strategies;
  • monitor the impact of the new strategies; and
  • refine the approaches as needed in an ongoing pursuit of greater equity.

Influencing perceptions of Fairness

Every direct or indirect interaction an individual has with legal authorities informs the individual’s perception of the justice system.

The way “people and their problems are managed when they are dealing with the courts has more influence than the outcome of their case on compliance."[18] Probation officers should make active efforts to act in ways that support positive perceptions of fairness. To accomplish this, juvenile probation professionals can help to support the following elements of procedural justice.

  • Voice. elevate the youth’s and family’s ability to participate and express their viewpoints in the process
  • Respect. Treat youth and families with respect
  • Neutrality. Provide unbiased treatment that is ensured by transparent practices
  • Trust. Ensure the youth understand the processes and decisions by explaining things in an effective manner and show concern for the youth’s situation


  1. Wilson, J.P., Hugenberg, K., & Rule, N.O. (2017). Racial bias in judgments of physical size and formidability: From size to threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(1), 59–80.
  2. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2019. The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  3. Love, T.P. & Morris, E.W. (2019). Opportunities diverted: Diversion and institutionalized racial disadvantage in the juvenile justice system. Race and Social Problems, 11, 33–44.
  4. Leiber, M. J., Richetelli, D., & Feyerherm, W. (2009). Disproportionate minority contact technical assistance manual (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
  5. Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.
  6. Spivak, A.L., Wagner, B.M., Whitmer, J.M., & Charish, C.L. (2014). Gender and status offending: Judicial paternalism in juvenile justice processing. Feminist Criminology, 9(3), 224–248.
  7. Moore, L.D. & Padavic, I. (2010). Racial and ethnic disparities in girls’ sentencing in the juvenile justice system. Feminist Criminology, 5(3), 263-285.
  8. Love, T.P. & Morris, E.W. (2019). Opportunities diverted: Diversion and institutionalized racial disadvantage in the juvenile justice system. Race and Social Problems, 11, 33–44.
  9. Perrault, R.T., Vincent, G.M., & Guy, L.S. (2017). Are risk assessments racially biased?: Field study of the SAVRY and YLS/CMI in probation. Psychological Assessment, 29(6),664–678.
  10. Schwalbe, C.S. (2008). A meta-analysis of juvenile justice risk assessment instruments: Predictive validity by gender. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(11), 1367–1381.
  11. Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.
  12. Perrault, R.T., Vincent, G.M., & Guy, L.S. (2017). Are risk assessments racially biased?: Field study of the SAVRY and YLS/CMI in probation. Psychological Assessment, 29(6),664–678.
  13. Spivak, A.L., Wagner, B.M., Whitmer, J.M., & Charish, C.L. (2014). Gender and status offending: Judicial paternalism in juvenile justice processing. Feminist Criminology, 9(3), 224–248.
  14. Depew, B., Eren, O., & Mocan, N. (2016). Judges, juveniles, and in-group bias. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 22003.
  15. Annie E. Casey (2018). Transforming Juvenile Probation: A Vision for Getting it Right.
  16. Schlesinger, T. (2018). Decriminalizing racialized youth through juvenile diversion. The Future of Children, 28(1), 59–81.
  17. Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. H. (1993). Crime in the making: Pathways and turning points through life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  18. Tyler, T., Procedural justice and defendant's evaluations of the courts, the law, and the political system. American Bar Foundation, 1986–87, $54,583. (With Professor Casper).