Desktop Guide to
Good Juvenile Probation Practice
Young adult leaning on rail on stairs

History of juvenile probation

Juvenile probation practice has gone through many waves[1] in response to “pendulum swings” influenced by policy change and societal perceptions of youth delinquency.

Current reform efforts promote changes that emphasize youth strengths, increased use of diversion for youth who do not require justice system interventions, and more effective interventions for those youth who will remain on probation caseloads.

Timeline for juvenile probation and justice


Houses of refuge, reformation, reform schools, and other institutions for training and care of juveniles began to be established across the nation.


John Augustus
John Augustus

A Boston Man, John Augustus, began bailing youth out based on their previous character, age, and influences that could affect their future behavior asking the court to continue their cases on the strength of their promise to behave and his willingness to help them.


Massachusetts formally adopted probation law for juveniles.

Wave 1

The first juvenile court, established in 1899, took a rehabilitative approach, grounded in the same principles that underlie today’s reforms: children are different from adults; they are less responsible for their actions and thus not deserving of adult punishments; society has an interest in protecting the m and investing in their futures.


Cook County, Illinois established a specialty court that has become known as the first juvenile court. Among its tenants, was a primary reliance on probation and probation officers to rehabilitate young offenders. Within the following decades, nearly every state established juvenile probation with legislature and juvenile courts.


The National Probation Association held its first gathering in a Minneapolis church.


The National Probation Association published Juvenile Courts and Probation arguing that probation should be “an active constructive force in the lives of children under its influence” performed by publicly paid, trained, full time officers.


The National Probation Association published its first volume of standards for juvenile probation and juvenile courts.


The National Probation Association established the first Model Juvenile Court Act.

Wave 2

In the middle of the twentieth century, the Supreme Court for the first time gave juveniles Constitutional protections against self-incrimination, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to counsel.


Kent v. United States- juvenile offenders are entitled to the same amount of due process of law as adults while under the jurisdiction of a juvenile court.


Initial post-mortem brain studies, suggest earlier development of more basic sensory function in the brain while the parts that support reasoning are last to develop (Yakovlev, Lecours and Minkowski, 1967).

In re Gault the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment applies to juvenile defendants. A major recommendation from the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice was to divert youth whenever possible to avoid stigmas that could produce more delinquency.


In re Winship when adjudicated youth must be found guilty without a reasonable doubt (the same as in adult criminal cases)


Youth do not have the right to a jury trial (McKeiver v. Pennsylvania)


The JJDPA was established. A misconception based on misinterpreted reports—traced back to 231 separate evaluations spread the word that “nothing works” for rehabilitating juvenile and adult probationers.


Youth can’t be adjudicated and then tried for the same crime in criminal court (double jeopardy) (Breed v. Jones). Youth can’t be given the death penalty (Roper v. Simmons)



Wave 3

In response to a sharp increase in violent crime among youths in the 1980s and early 1990s, virtually every state passed harsh, punitive laws and many abandoned the focus on rehabilitation. As a result, recidivism became the norm. The brunt of the harsh policies was borne by children of color.


Rapid escalation in volume and severity of youth crime paired with growing public concern that juvenile courts were “soft" in responding to youth, began to alter the atmosphere for probation officers.


Research indicates that the hippocampus (the part of the brain that controls the memory) continues to develop into adolescence.


John DeIulio, then a Princeton professor, issued a dire threat:  “America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile ‘super predators’—radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more pre-teenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders.”  The term “super predator” spread.


Zero tolerance policies developed in the 1990s, in response to school shootings and general fears about crime. In 1994, the federal government passed the Gun-Free Schools Act, which requires schools to expel any student who brings a gun to campus.

Wave 4

In the 1990s the crime wave subsided, and by the end of the century mayors, governors, and legislators across the nation began to recognize the high fiscal and social costs of incarceration. At the same time, developmental and, later, brain research made a strong case for treating children differently from adults. A new wave of reforms began, aimed at holding young offenders accountable for their actions in


Structural MRI studies identify that a humans ability to process complex information  continues to develop into adolescence.


In the landmark decision in Roper v. Simmons, issued on March 1, 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty for a crime committed by a child under the age of 18.


Research suggests youth have a limited capacity for reasoning and control especially where they perceive opportunities for immediate reward (Casey, Jones and Hare, 2008; Ernst, Pine and Hardin, 2006; Steinberg, 2008; Shulman et al. 2015).


Supreme Court of the United States holding that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses.(Graham v. Florida)


Age is a factor that helps determine if a youth is in custody and needs to be read his or her Miranda rights (J.D.B v. North Carolina)


Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.


Function MRI studies indicate that a youths ability to exercise control over their reason and motivation is limited and continues to develop into adolescence (Diamond, 2013)


A study found that the ability of adolescents to use the brain networks that support cognitive, sensorimotor, and motivational systems at the same time is increasing which allows for more complex reasoning that considers potential consequences to actions, however this ability is unstable (Marek et al. 2015).

Additional Function MRI studies indicate that a youths ability to exercise control over their reason and motivation is limited and continues to develop into adolescence (Luna et al. 2015).


Research indicates that maladaptive experiences (trauma, social influences, environmental influences) can disrupt normal trajectories and lead to abnormal trajectories (criminality) and the developing adolescent brain can be instructed with positive experiences to correct effects of maladaptive experiences.  (Luna and Wright, 2016).


JJDPA Reauthorized. The Vera Institute of Justice created a tool for interested community members and prosecutors to better understand what prosecutors can do to advance equal justice. This tool includes the 7 Critical Decision Points resource.


  1. Weiss, Giudi (2013), The Fourth Wave: Juvenile Justice Reforms for the Twenty-First Century. Commissioned by the National Campaign to Reform State Juvenile Justice systems for the Juvenile Justice Funders’ Collaborative.