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Dispositional case planning is the heart of juvenile probation services. It is the art of crafting a case plan presented to the Judge describing the recommended provision of services for the justice-involved youth. The report is an opportunity to present a wide breadth of information to the Court allowing the Judge to make an informed decision, ultimately helping the youth receive the less restrictive means of treatment possible. With this intention, why did California see its highest number of youth in confinement in 1996?

Back in the mid-1800s probation services were established to help promote better outcomes for youth and adults in a community setting. Unfortunately, somewhere between the mid-1800s and now, the social work model of probation has been lost. This has largely been in part to high case loads and reduced fiscal allocations, resulting in a movement away from tailored community-based services for youth.

Applying a cookie cutter approach to developing case plans has created significant negative impacts. Case plans that are inflexible, presumptive, and rely on a narrow range of options often result in jurisdictions relying heavily on youth incarceration. As youth crime declines nationally and many jurisdictions have reduced their use of out-of-home confinement, it is an important time to consider the importance of the role dispositional case plans have in keeping youth in the community. Well-designed and individualized dispositional case plans can promote better outcomes for youth while still achieving the goals of public safety. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice’s home of San Francisco is a living example.

In 1978 San Francisco’s Public Defender’s Office engaged in an experiment. In an unprecedented fashion, the office employed a social work intern to develop alternative dispositional recommendations for justice-involved youth. This was a time in when San Francisco relied heavily on state incarceration for youth. By simply employing an individual to examine these cases differently and present alternative plans, the county saw extreme drops in state youth incarceration rates. In fact, since 1990, San Francisco County has had the lowest commitment rate to the state youth correctional system among the most populous counties in California.

How did this extreme change in one county happen so quickly? The social worker approached cases with a different lens focused on learning more about the youth, their family, and their engagement in the community. The power of information can not be underestimated. By simply asking more diverse open-ended questions with a resource-driven lens, the case planner was able to develop case plans that were more tailored to the individualized needs of the youth. Further, not being limited to the exploration of a set range of dispositional options opened a wider array of services available to the youth. Actively seeking alternative services that promoted success for the youth allowed for the development of localized, structured case plans, ultimately leading to a dramatic decrease in state commitments.

As many law enforcement leaders and advocates begin to rethink California’s approach to juvenile justice, it is time to revisit this tool for keeping youth in our communities and not in out-of-home placement or state facilities. The willingness to think creatively and sometimes outside-of-the box can be challenge for government systems that are accustomed to a certain approach for services. However, thinking back to the root of probation services and embracing the intended role of the juvenile probation officer may open a whole new array of services available to youth. San Francisco’s experiment proves it can be done with great success.