Youth, Probation Officer, and Parent Behavior Influence Case Processing and Recidivism

Youth, Probation Officer, and Parent Behavior Influence Case Processing and Recidivism

Youth behavior, the assessment of extralegal factors by probation officers, and parental input in probation interviews affect case processing decisions for juvenile first-time offenders and subsequent reoffending. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, & Law | 2017, Vol. 23, No. 1, 105-117

And Justice for All: Determinants and Effects of Probation Officers’ Processing Decisions Regarding First-Time Juvenile Offenders


Adam Fine, University of California, Irvine
Sachiko Donley, University of California, Irvine
Caitlin Cavanagh, Michigan State University
Sarah Miltimore, University of California, Irvine
Laurence Steinberg, Temple University and King Abdulaziz University
Paul J. Frick, Louisiana State University and Australian Catholic University
Elizabeth Cauffman, University of California, Irvine


When a youth is accused of committing a crime, juvenile justice system arbiters, such as probation officers, interview both the youth and the youth’s guardian to gather information before deciding to either process the youth formally or informally. Factors about a youth that are unrelated to the criminal charge may contribute to arbiters’ processing decisions. Such extralegal factors include demographic characteristics and characteristics of the youth’s context (e.g., home environment, peer delinquency). Little is known about how extralegal factors other than age and race affect youth processing. The present study draws on data from probation officer assessment interviews with 359 male, first-time, low-level juvenile offenders, as well as longitudinal self-report and official records of a youth’s reoffending after his first arrest, to determine how extralegal factors affect probation processing decisions, and whether processing is associated with youth reoffending and rearrest. The results indicate that even after taking into account legal factors and demographic characteristics, youth are more likely to be processed formally if they refuse to comment on the charge, if their probation officers believe their guardians to be relatively more disapproving of their friends, and if their probation officers perceive their home environments to be more problematic. Although youth who are processed formally self-report reoffending at the same rate as youth who are processed informally, youth who are processed formally are more likely to be rearrested in the subsequent 6 months. Implications for how processing decisions may promote sustained involvement in the juvenile justice system are discussed.


processing decisions, juvenile probation, juvenile justice

Summary of the Research

“In many jurisdictions, probation officers (POs) are the first point of contact in the juvenile justice system, and are responsible for making the initial processing decision. POs, in addition to their supervisory duties, compile information regarding a youthful offender’s legal history and interview both a youth and the youth’s guardian in order to gather information before making an intake processing decision (Leiber, Reitzel, & Mack, 2011). Such processing decisions determine what a youth’s sanctions will be and how deeply he or she will penetrate the juvenile justice system” (105).

“Following a youth’s arrest, the juvenile court system may process the youth with varying degrees of formality or leniency… and the legal consequences faced by a youth accused of a given crime depend in large part on idiosyncratic factors, such as the practices of a local jurisdiction or the particular probation officer assigned to the case (Gardner & Lanza-Kaduce, 2015; Feld, 1991)” (106).

“…It is understandable that legal factors play a role in determining processing decisions…however, factors about a youth that are unrelated to the criminal charge also may contribute to a probation officer’s decision when processing the youth. Such extralegal factors may include characteristics of the individual (e.g., age, race, gender, mental/behavioral health) or characteristics of the context in which he or she is embedded (e.g., family composition, home environment, peer delinquency)” (106).

“Families, peers, neighborhoods, and schools are important contexts in which youth develop (Steinberg & Morris, 2001). A limited body of research suggests that these contextual, extralegal factors may be implicated in processing decisions (Ruback & Vardaman, 1997)… The present study leverages a unique study design and sample to ask the following questions: Above and beyond legal factors (e.g., prior arrests, charge severity) and demographic factors (e.g., race, age), do extralegal contextual factors and youth demeanor influence processing decisions? How do these processing decisions affect youth recidivism (operationalized through both self-report and official arrests)?” (108).

The sample for the study consisted of 359 male, first-time, low-level juvenile offenders. Juvenile court records were analyzed from 2005-2009. Data was analyzed from a research interview with the youth and from official data found in the probation department. “Upon arrest, the youth and his guardian meet with a Deputy Probation Officer (PO). The PO interviews the youth and his guardian, asking them unscripted questions but specifically about the youth’s attitudes, the guardian’s attitudes, and safety and supervision within the home environment. Based on information provided by the youth and his parent or guardian during the meeting in response to questions about each domain (e.g., youth’s attitudes toward the crime), the PO completes an assessment report and categorizes the responses within each domain (e.g., remorseful, indifferent)” (108). Additional measures used for this sample were official arrest records, probation records and processing decisions, and a youth self-report for demographic variables and offending.


“After taking into account legal factors (prior criminal behaviors, characteristic of the crime for which the youth was charged) and youths’ demographic characteristics (age, race, and parents’ education as a proxy for socioeconomic status) we find that youth are more likely to be formally processed if their probation officers perceive their home environments to be more problematic and their parents to be more disapproving of their friends. Additionally, we find that youth who refuse to comment on the crime and youth who show indifference toward the crime are more likely to be formally processed.” (111). Further, youth that were formally processed were more likely to recidivate in the next 6 months, compared to youths who were informally processed. It is possible that “youth with more formal dispositions are more closely monitored and thus more likely to be caught for their illegal behaviors” (112).

There were no connections established between case processing and youth self-report data on offending behavior. Regarding the perceptions of probation officers, and “consistent with past research, we find that probation officers’ perceptions of youths’ home environments play a significant role in how youth are processed” (112). That is, probation officers are more likely to recommend formal case processing if they perceive the youth’s home environment to be negative. However, although the probationer’s assessment of extralegal factors in a youth’s case affects case processing recommendations, it is not related to reoffending.

“The current study also suggests that probation officers may take into account a youth’s peer group, specifically, how approving their parents are of their friends, when making their processing decisions…Probation officers’ use of this information to make processing decisions may support their goal of identifying juveniles who are at-risk of reoffending. In addition and importantly, this finding illustrates that parents’ input during probationary interviews (specifically, their approval of their son’s friends) may influence how their children are processed through the system” (113).

Translating Research into Practice

“One important takeaway of the current study is for parents. Our findings illustrate that the information that parents provide during probationary interviews is used to make processing decisions. Considering evidence that many parents whose children come in contact with the system lack knowledge of the basic workings of the system (Cavanagh & Cauffman, 2016), not to mention that adults and youth in general know little about the legal system (Flin, Stevenson, & Davies, 1989; Goodwin-De Faria & Marinos, 2012; Miner-Romanoff, 2015; Redding & Fuller, 2004; Redlich, Silverman, & Steiner, 2003), these findings suggest that parents should be made aware that the information that they provide during interactions with juvenile justice arbiters could be used when decisions are made about their child’s case” (114)

“The current study also illustrates that, indeed, juvenile justice practitioners consider factors such as home life and friends that may place youths in riskier situations or environments that seemingly lead to problematic outcomes such as reoffending…If one of the primary intentions of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate youth, including deterring them from reentering the system, better approaches to utilizing risk factors for decision making need be developed and implemented” (114).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

Future research may want to focus on several factors. First, this research should be extended and replicated with different samples in a different population. Also, the standard for measurement of recidivism was 6 months for the present study, primarily because the probation length in the present study’s jurisdiction as 6 months. Using a longer probation period may yield different results. Finally, the present study suggested that extralegal assessments by the probation officer (i.e. perception of home environment) affected case processing. These assessments are rather subjective; perhaps future research may want to investigate what is considered problematic in a youth’s home and why it affects processing decisions.

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Sarah Hartigan

Sara Hartigan is a second year Forensic Psychology Master’s student at John Jay and hope to obtain a Ph.D. in Clinical Forensic Psychology in the future. My main areas of interest include clinical evaluations and developing treatment interventions within the forensic population.

1 Comment

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  • This is an interesting point and merits much more research. I wonder if similar results would be obtained with adult offenders processing and recidivism.

    Sandra Schug Reply

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