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The starting place of the juvenile court process, allegations of delinquency may come from many different individuals who come into contact with juveniles, such as school officers or administrators, law enforcement personnel, probation officers, community members, parents, etc.

Depending on the scenario and the relevant state’s law, juveniles may be arrested by law enforcement or given a citation in leu of arrest with directions to appear before the court on a given day or time.

  • For most juveniles taken into state custody following an allegation of delinquency, they will go through an intake and risk assessment division.
  • During this period in the juvenile process, standardized risk assessment tools may be used to determine the whether the juvenile is a risk to themselves or the public. Additionally, risk assessments often determine whether the juvenile is likely to appear at future court hearings.
  • Juveniles determined to be low risk to themselves and the public and likely to return for future court dates are most often (but not always) released to their parent or guardian with particular conditions to be met, such as returning for all future court dates and avoiding another allegation of delinquency.
  • For those deemed high risk or unlikely to reappear for future court dates, they may be taken into temporary custody until their adjudication hearing. Depending on the state, intake officers may have authority to dismiss cases or use methods of alternative justice.

Intake Teams

Depending on the state, there may be a separate youth intake team or unit in charge of making intake decisions, as well as administering any risk or needs assessment tools. These teams may be part of the juvenile probation agency or an independent unit providing services for juvenile courts. Some examples include:

  • In Mississippi’s Youth Court, the Intake Unit makes recommendations to the youth court on potential resolutions, formal or informal, for delinquency allegations.
  • In states like Montana, intake is handled by juvenile probation officers.
  • Nebraska officers can give juveniles civil citations, which require juveniles to appear before a Juvenile Assessment Center to determine whether they are required to participate in community service or other appropriate services.
  • Wyoming has multidisciplinary teams that are put together upon the allegation of delinquency and formulate reasonable and attainable recommendations for the court.

Risk Assessment Tools

Risk and needs assessment tools, which, when used correctly, can help decision-makers identify the most appropriate types of services or supervision for each young person, and target interventions to ultimately reduce recidivism. Risk assessment tools may be uniform statewide, regionally, or only locally; however, in the last 10 years, states have shown interest in consistency by adopting a statewide risk assessment tool. In 2013, only 33 states used a statewide assessment. In 2020, that number is up to 42 states, with Nevada, New Jersey, Texas and Wisconsin being the latest states to implement a single risk assessment tool for juvenile probation.

One of the attributes of a well-designed risk assessment instrument is that it will work equally well for all youth, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or other similar factors. Effective tools can minimize bias by standardizing how agencies determine a youth’s risk to public safety and plan for case management.

Other types of assessment tools can help intake officers make initial decisions whether to detain a youth or provide initial screenings to identify young people who need mental health assessments.

The decision to file a formal petition with the court following an allegation of delinquency may vary from state to state. Most commonly, the prosecuting attorney has discretion to file a formal petition, or use any available alternative justice solution. Often, the prosecutor’s decision will be based on any risk assessment information gathered.

Depending on the state, prosecutors, judges, or both may be responsible for deciding whether to dismiss a case.

Alternative Justice solutions vary from state to state and locality to locality, but four common process are: Diversion, Informal Adjustment, Consent Decree, and Deferred Adjudication.

What they have in common is taking the juvenile alleged to be delinquent out of the court process and putting them through a community or program-based process. These programs are often tailored for the communities they serve and focus on rehabilitative, rather than punitive, solutions to delinquency. By providing these options to non-serious cases, juvenile courts can focus their resources more effectively. Each of these may be slightly different from state to state. 

“Alternative justice” is a term NCSL uses to include a wide swath of state procedures. Alternative Justice solutions vary from state to state and locality to locality, but four common process are: Diversion, Informal Adjustment, Consent Decree, and Deferred Adjudication.

  • Diversion: Decisions, programs or services to steer youth away, under certain circumstances, from formal processing in the juvenile justice system.
  • Informal Adjustment: A civil agreement entered into by a young person and courts to avoid formal processing in the juvenile justice system―like a civil contract between the court and the juvenile.
  • Consent Decree: Agreements entered into between juveniles and the court in which the juvenile will typically admit to the allegations of delinquency in exchange for avoiding formal processing. (most similar to plea bargains in adult court).
  • Deferred Adjudication: A process in which the judge and/or prosecutor agree with the juvenile to postpone adjudication for the juvenile if a juvenile agrees to meet certain conditions over a period of time. Upon successful completion of the conditions, the case would be dismissed prior to adjudication.

Many of these statutory procedures are designed to provide young people with opportunities to avoid entering the juvenile justice system or, if they must enter the system, to avoid formal sentencing. States are rapidly moving toward creating these processes and increasing their use. As an example of state commitment to such a process, Virginia’s purpose clause’s first goal is to “divert from or within the juvenile justice system, to the extent possible, consistent with the protection of the public safety, those children who can be cared for or treated through alternative programs.” Alternative justice procedures can generally be broken down into two categories: pre-adjudication and post-adjudication.

Pre-Adjudication

Pre-adjudication alternative justice strategies include diversion, consent decrees and informal adjustments, as well as a few other programs. The commonality between these strategies is that they avoid the adjudication process in front of the judge. In fact, diversion strategies often avoid the filing of a petition with the court altogether. Generally, consent decrees require an agreement between the prosecutor and the young person, and they require that young person to admit fault and accept responsibility. In some states, the term “informal adjustment” is used, and these agreements operate similarly to diversion. In other states, informal adjustments operate more similarly to consent decrees, often requiring the juvenile to admit fault. As states operate these strategies in vastly differing manners, using terms that have different meanings, it is difficult to come to one definition for each. Below is a map of states that provide at least one of these strategies through statute.

Map of states that provide at least one pre-adjudication strategy

For statutory language, see our Juvenile Probation State Law page.

Post-Adjudication

Post-adjudication alternative justice strategies are most often referred to as “deferrals” but are sometimes called “suspended sentences.” The commonality between these strategies is that a young person has been formally processed into the juvenile justice system and adjudicated (the juvenile equivalent of a criminal conviction) and sometimes the sentencing process. A deferral or suspension functions most often by allowing the young person to complete some form of supervision or programing prior to their adjudication or formal sentence taking effect. Upon successful completion, the judge can dismiss the case altogether. Most often, these types of strategies are left up to the discretion of judges, prosecutors, or both. Below is a map showing the states that provide at least one post-adjudication alternative justice process in statute or statewide court rules. States without a statewide process may have a process in a county, district or municipality.

States that provide at least one post-adjudication alternative justice process

For statutory language, see our Juvenile Probation State Law page.

  • The adjudication and disposition process are very similar and may happen within one court hearing depending on the state. However, they are not to be confused.
  • An adjudication hearing determines whether, in fact, the juvenile had been delinquent.
  • A disposition hearing determines the sanctions the juvenile should receive once they have been determined to be delinquent. One of the most common dispositions for juveniles is probation.
  • The judge can also dismiss cases. Additionally, following the filing of a formal petition but prior to final disposition, to refer the case to an alternative justice solution. Sometimes this requires agreement from the prosecutor and/or the juvenile.

Sometimes when a young person is adjudicated delinquent they are sent to detention, which involves being taken into custody by the state for a set period.

One of the most common disposition types for juveniles is adjudicated delinquent. Probation generally entails following specific conditions, such as avoiding committing another offense, participating in schooling or work programs, meeting with probation officers, drug testing, etc. Most often, courts have broad discretion over the conditions of probation. However, some states have statutorily enumerated the types of conditions judges may choose from.

Alongside each states’ unique juvenile justice systems, each state has unique requirements for juvenile probation, including supervision requirements a probationer must adhere to, and how probationers should complete their probation program. Additionally, there are different types of probation, ranging from unsupervised probation to intensive supervision probation.

Colorado is an example of a state that has both unsupervised and intensive supervision probation. The unsupervised probation is usually reserved for minor offenses, does not involve a probation officer (the young person reports directly to the court) and can include community service, paying restitution or taking an alcohol class.

Colorado’s Intensive Supervision program includes any or all of the following:

  • Increased supervision of the juvenile by probation officers.
  • Specific youth case management approaches.
  • Community service work assignments.
  • Restitution programs.
  • Structured group training regarding problem-solving, social skills, negotiation skills, emotion management, creative thinking, value enhancement and critical reasoning.
  • Electronic or global position monitoring and substance abuse testing to monitor compliance with the program by the juvenile and providing sanctions for failure to comply with the program.
  • Individual and family treatment.

Conditions of Probation

Conditions of probation are vastly different depending on multiple factors, including risk assessment tools, but some common examples include:

  • Restitution or a payment commonly used to make crime victims whole (i.e., paying to replace or repair damaged property).
  • Prohibitions on contacting other parties involved, such as a victim or other inappropriate association.
  • Community service requirements.
  • Letters of apology to victims.
  • Curfews.
  • Forfeiture of driving privileges.
  • Referrals to local social service agencies.
  • Substance abuse or mental health counseling.
  • Required attendance to a treatment program.

Length of Probation

The length of probation and the court’s ability to extend probation for a longer time can vary drastically from state to state. Some states do not limit the length of time a juvenile may be on probation in statute, but instead provide judges with that discretion during sentencing. Some examples of states that do limit the time a juvenile may be on probation include:

  • Kentucky, Arizona and others limit probation to one year if certain criteria are met.
  • Similarly, New York limits probation to one year but allows for an extension of one more year, limited to two years total.
  • Kansas limits the length of probation based on risk assessment and offense type, ranging from a maximum of six month to a maximum of 12 months.
  • South Dakota limits probation to six months, unless modified or the juvenile is placed on intensive probation, which is limited to 18 months.

Research has shown that well-implemented programs designed to be rehabilitative through counseling, therapy, skill building, job training and restorative justice all reduce juvenile reoffending, while traditional supervision practices tends to have a lesser impact.

Although the cost of probation is significantly less than the cost of incarceration, probation programs are still a cost to the states. Twenty states require those receiving probation services, or their legal guardians, to pay a fee to help alleviate the state’s costs for probation services. Some of the consequences for failure to pay may be severe, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC), including civil or criminal contempt, incarceration, violation of probation or informal adjustment sanctions, additional fees/interest, license suspension, civil judgment or additional adjudication.

According to NJDC, unpaid costs or fines at case closure are associated with increased recidivism, and costs and fines can exacerbate existing racial disparities. Some states recently acted on a legislative level to prevent courts from assessing juvenile probation fees, as well as other administrative fees. In 2018, California became the first state to abolish all administrative fees in juvenile delinquency cases, including probation fees. Nevada followed suit in 2019.

Below are states that have statutorily established fees for juvenile probation supervision, including the amount as described in statute and any waivers of those fees in statute. In the states that do not statutorily subscribe them, fines and fees are established either by the court or the administrative agency responsible for probation.

Arkansas

  • Amount: Not to exceed $25 per month

Connecticut

  • Amount: Full or partial reimbursement
  • Waiver: Indigency

Florida

  • Amount: $1 per day
  • Waiver: Significant financial hardship

Georgia

  • Amount: $10 - $200 initial fee, plus $2 - $30 per month

Idaho

  • Amount: Not more than the maximum monthly misdemeanor probation supervision fee

Indiana

  • Amount: Not prescribed in statute

Kansas

  • Amount: Not prescribed in statute
  • Waiver: Undue hardship

Louisiana

  • Amount: Not to exceed $50 per month
  • Waiver: Financial inability

Montana

  • Amount: Based on financial ability to pay

New Hampshire

  • Amount: Portion or all of diversion fee
  • Notes: Based on the interest of justice and rehabilitation

New Mexico

  • Amount: Based on ability to pay.

New York

  • Amount: $30 per month
  • Waiver: Indigency, unreasonable hardship, or dependents

North Carolina

  • Amount: Based on ability to pay

Ohio

  • Amount: Any or all costs associated
  • Waiver: Indigency

Oklahoma

  • Not prescribed in statute.

Oregon

  • Amount: Based on ability to pay

Puerto Rico

  • Not prescribed in statute.

Rhode Island

  • Not prescribed in statute.

South Carolina

  • Not prescribed in statute.

Pennsylvania

  • Not prescribed in statute.

South Dakota

  • Not prescribed in statute.

Tennessee

  • Not prescribed in statute.

Texas

  • Amount: Not more than $15 per month
  • Waiver: Ability to pay

Utah

  • Not prescribed in statute.

Vermont

  • Not prescribed in statute.

Virginia

  • Not prescribed in statute.

Virgin Island

  • Not prescribed in statute.

District of Columbia

  • Not prescribed in statute.

Washington

  • Amount: Not to exceed $30 for youth court; Cost for divsesion
  • Waiver: Inability to pay

West Virgina

  • Not prescribed in statute.

Wisconsin

  • Amount: Contribution
  • Waiver: Ability to pay

Wyoming

  • Amount: Any or all the costs associated
  • Waiver: Ability to pay

The traditional response to violations of probation allow courts to modify conditions of probation; i.e., increase drug testing, increase probation officer contacts, or provide additional monitoring or programing. Another response is to revoke probation and reinstate the original disposition (the juvenile version of sentencing), up to and including taking a juvenile into custody.

In fact, data from a report from Pew Charitable Trusts shows that “nearly a quarter of the 48,043 juveniles held in residential facilities across the U.S. on a single day in 2015” were confined for status offenses, like truancy or running away or for technical violations, like a probation violation.  With such a large population of their residential facilities being filled with status offenses or technical violations of supervision, some states are implementing new probation models to reduce the population and handle juvenile probation.

Graduated Responses

Graduated responses, sometimes called graduated sanctions, are an accountability-based, graduated series of responses (including incentives, treatment and services) within the juvenile probation system. This structured system of incentives and sanctions for probation officers and courts is designed to respond to youth behavior and motivate youth to succeed on probation. Graduated responses still hold young people accountable for their actions. They also protect communities from the effects of juvenile delinquency by providing appropriate sanctions for young people, supporting law-abiding behavior and preventing a young person’s subsequent involvement with the juvenile justice system.

States have implemented graduated sanctions in various ways. For example:

  • Nebraska statute directs that the Office of Probation Administration may establish a statewide standardized graduated response matrix of incentives for compliance and positive behaviors and sanctions for probationers who violate the terms and conditions of a court order.
  • Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice is statutorily required to develop and implement a graduated sanctions protocol of swift, certain, proportionate and graduated sanctions.
  • South Dakota’s Supreme Court adopted a juvenile graduated response grid and rules to guide court services officers in determining the appropriate response to a violation or compliance with the condition of juvenile probation.

Related Resources

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