Findings from this study caution against using negatively framed language in court reports, given its detrimental impacts on JPOs’ perceptions of youths’ compliance and their recommendations to sanction youth and revoke probation. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.
Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2019, Vol. 43, No. 2, 193-204
Elizabeth Gale-Bentz, Naomi E. S. Goldstein, Lindsey M. Cole, and Kelley Durham, Drexel University (L3)
This study examined whether varying the presentation of information about a youth’s compliance with probation requirements in community provider reports influenced juvenile probation officers’ (JPOs) perceptions and court recommendations. This study used an experimental design to explore the impact of report framing (positive, neutral, negative) and youth risk level (low, high) on JPOs’ decision making. Pennsylvania-based JPOs (N = 209) participated in an anonymous, online study. Participants read one of six community provider reports about a hypothetical probationer and answered five questions about impressions of the youth and their recommendations to the court. JPOs who read negatively framed information rated compliance and effort significantly lower than those who read positively or neutrally framed information. JPOs who read negatively framed information reported lower likelihood of recommending positive court responses and greater likelihood of recommending negative court responses, particularly when considering probation revocation for youth identified as high risk. JPOs rated compliance significantly higher for youth identified as low risk than for youth identified as high risk. Mediation analyses revealed that JPOs’ perceptions of youth significantly mediated the pathway between report framing and court recommendations, but did not mediate the pathway from youth risk level to JPOs’ recommendations. Findings suggest that JPOs differentially interpret identical behaviors depending on the framing of information. Given that negatively framed information evoked significantly more unfavorable impressions and punitive recommendations, practitioners should consider how youths’ progress on probation is communicated among court personnel, particularly as ongoing juvenile probation reform efforts seek to promote consistent treatment across youth.
juvenile probation officers, framing, decision making
Summary of the Research
“Probation is the most commonly ordered sanction for youth adjudicated delinquent in the juvenile justice system, and juvenile probation officers (JPOs) are tasked with monitoring youths’ progress toward probation completion, with a particular focus on compliance with court ordered conditions. Official responses to noncompliance are at the discretion of the presiding judge and can have serious consequences for youth, including probation revocation and placement in correctional facilities. In fact, more than half of youth in one large sample failed to comply with at least one condition of probation, and nearly half of youth in the sample were sent to residential placements following revocation of probation. Judges’ decisions regarding youths’ status on probation are largely informed by information provided by JPOs, and, thus, the ways in which JPOs perceive youths’ (mis)behavior and convey that information to the court is an important area of research for further study. This study examined whether the framing of information about youths’ behavior in community provider reports affected JPOs’ perceptions of youth and the recommendations they would make to the court—taking into account the youth’s identified risk for recidivism level” (p. 193-194).
“Ongoing juvenile justice reform efforts emphasize the negative impacts of confinement on youth, and research demonstrates that many youth under community supervision who do not follow their court-ordered requirements are at risk for placement in secure facilities. JPOs’ reports and recommendations provide important information to inform and guide judges’ rulings and, therefore, can substantially impact youth outcomes. As a result, it is necessary to gain insight into what influences JPOs’ decision-making processes. The current study sought to build upon extant research by examining whether the framing of information community providers convey to JPOs about youths’ compliance with probation requirements affects JPOs’ perceptions of youth and recommendations to the court” (p. 195).
“The differential effects of youths’ behavioral framing on JPOs’ impressions and recommendations align with prior research on factors influencing the ways in which JPOs assign labels to youth and how these factors impact their decision making. To that end, findings from these studies, as well as others, emphasize the power of language in shaping JPOs’ decision making, identifying the ways in which differences in descriptions of youths’ behaviors impact outcomes. The current study adds to this body of literature by revealing another factor that influences JPOs’ decision-making processes: JPOs’ perceptions of how hard youth are trying to comply with their probation requirements. More specifically, JPOs’ impressions of youths’ effort to comply, which were shaped by the ways in which their probation-related behaviors were framed, guided JPOs’ recommendations to the court. Further, the large effect sizes observed for the main effects of report framing indicate that the way information was presented strongly influenced JPOs’ decision making, particularly with respect to their perceptions of the youth’s compliance and the youth’s effort to fulfill probation conditions. Notably, negative framing drove the majority of the large effect sizes observed across the five outcome variables, again suggesting the powerful impact of negative portrayals of youth on JPOs’ decision making. In contrast, for all but the ultimate outcome of likelihood of recommending probation revocation and placement, which was a moderate effect size, youth risk level exerted less of an impact on JPOs’ decision making than did report framing, as indicated by the small effect sizes for main effects and interaction terms. Together, these findings suggest that the framing of information about youths’ probation-related behaviors generates substantial implications for JPOs’ decision making—not only about their perceptions of youth, but also about their recommendations to incentivize or sanction youth—particularly when information is negatively framed” (p. 200-201).
Translating Research into Practice
“The subjectivity of the interpretation of young people’s behaviors has broader juvenile justice system policy and practice implications. As juvenile probation departments across the country begin to develop and implement structured, developmentally informed systems of supervision that are intended to foster equity across youth care must be given to the ways in which youths’ compliant and noncompliant probation-related behaviors are defined, described, and communicated among juvenile justice personnel. Although these structured systems aim to promote consistency in responding to young people’s behaviors, findings from the current study suggest that this task may be more difficult in practice than in theory. We see that differences in language choices— such as describing a physical interaction as a fight versus a scuffle—and emphasized behaviors—such as focusing on what the youth has done versus what the youth has not done—can affect the ways in which JPOs think about and respond to their supervisees’ progress on probation. Differences in JPOs’ perceptions of youth and recommendations to the court were produced in a brief, one-paragraph community provider report with limited information about a hypothetical youth. The negative impact of longer, more detailed reports and interactions over a period of months on JPOs’ decision making about their supervisees could have longterm impacts; the longer and more intensive juveniles’ probation supervision, the more opportunities to identify misbehavior and sanction youth to confinement in a secure facility—a consequence with long-term outcomes academically, vocationally, emotionally, and with respect to recidivism” (p. 201).
“In addition to the ways court personnel communicate about young people’s behavior, it is important to consider the ways in which young people themselves may internalize descriptions of behaviors. The phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy has been observed in many environments, such as educational settings, where children’s academic performance often matches teachers’ expectations, particularly for minority youth and youth from economically disadvantaged communities and home settings, where parents’ beliefs about their children’s substance use impact outcomes. Although the impact of expectations on youths’ achievement has not been examined in a probation context, these findings suggest that when community providers, JPOs, and judges communicate to youth that they are not putting forward effort and failing to comply with their probation requirements, it is possible that youth may adopt these negative attributions and act accordingly. However, positive expectations held by adults can combat negative expectations of youth held by other adults. Community providers and JPOs, then, have an important role in providing positive messages to court involved youth about their abilities to succeed, particularly around descriptions of compliance and effort. Expectations communicated by JPOs and judges of young people’s capacities to successfully fulfill probation requirements have the potential to shape youths’ behaviors for the better. If court personnel seek to promote positive outcomes for youth, framing behaviors in ways that acknowledge effort and recognize success, they may better position youth to successfully complete probation” (p. 201).
Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians
“Findings from the current study lay the foundation for several areas of future research. Findings from this study should be replicated in other jurisdictions across the country, as well as with other court personnel, such as district attorneys and judges. Broadening the data in these ways may provide direction for policy and practice changes. For example, if consistent findings are produced by probation departments across the nation, standardized report formats might be adopted to promote the provision of fair and proportionate responses to the behavior of young people on probation. Recommendations for such standardized formats might include presenting quantitative information neutrally and objectively (e.g., stating that the youth has attended 10 out of 15 sessions) to provide court personnel with information regarding what the youth has accomplished, in addition to what was required of the youth. Additionally, consideration might be given to the use of qualitative descriptors when describing youths’ behaviors, as these qualitative descriptors can portray identical behaviors in markedly different lights. To that end, standardized language may help to reduce inconsistencies and disproportionality across youth” (p. 202).
“Finally, future research should further explore the extent to which youths’ risk levels impact JPOs’ impressions of youth and their recommendations to the court. Findings from the current study suggest that risk level influenced JPOs’ decision making, particularly when considering probation revocation—JPOs were more likely to recommend probation revocation for youth identified as high risk when receiving negatively framed reports of their behavior. Although this discrepancy may reflect bias—JPOs may be inclined to jump to negative conclusions and recommendations about youth labeled high risk—it may also reflect appropriate use of risk labels. If youth on probation are identified as high risk to the community, it may be appropriate to have a lower behavioral threshold for revoking probation. With movement toward use of risk assessment tools in juvenile probation decision making across the country, better understanding the role of identified risk level in JPOs’ impressions and recommendations could improve case management and youth outcomes. Knowing the harmful effects of placement on youths’ well-being, understanding factors that put justice-involved youth at greater risk for negative outcomes is a meaningful line of inquiry with important policy and practice implications” (p. 202).
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