Accountability and Control versus Engagement

Written by Wendy Schiller

Many of the practices observed in juvenile justice and in juvenile drug courts (JDCs) are adapted or directly inserted from the adult criminal justice system. These practices rely heavily on control and do little to engage youth in the process of their own change. However, juvenile justice research and reform efforts have gradually dismantled that type of thinking and many professionals working with justice-involved youth and families have begun thinking of engagement first!

This is especially important for JDC professionals because the premise of JDC is based initially on a therapeutic model. Many of the control and supervision strategies that can be found in traditional probation or adapted from the adult model crept into practices used when working with youth with substance use issues. But, they just don’t fit! For example, JDC programs’ Phase One requirements are often extremely strict and require youth to meet significantly high standards before advancing to Phase Two (e.g., house arrest or detention until a youth is clean or until they advance to Phase Two).

Many JDCs want to see 100% abstinence or guarantee 100% attendance in treatment and/or school during Phase One. In this case, the courts’ first instinct is to assert total control over the youth before considering engagement and letting the youth assist with identifying priorities, setting attainable goals, and developing plans regarding how to reach those goals. Unfortunately, the type of control put in place on the front end of the program leads to:

  • Quick failures, rather than successes
  • Extended stays in Phase One
  • The loss of leverage by the team because they have used two sanctions that should be used as their “hammer.”

Stop It! This is one of the 7 Deadly Sins!

JDCs that do this are misusing resources and setting youth up for failure, as well as lengthening the time youth are spending on probation. JDC teams should structure Phase One to include orientation goals where much of the responsibility is on the team to conduct assessments, develop integrated case plans, refer to services, and to familiarize the youth with the JDC programs and practices.

Short-Term Solution:

Agree, as a team, that this type of control should not be a part of the JDC program. One way to ensure that the team does not focus on control is to develop a checklist for Phase One:

  • I met with my probation officer and completed a youth assessment. Date: ______________________
  • My probation officer helped me develop a case plan with school, family, and community related goals, and I have a copy of my case plan. Date: ______________________
  • I met with the treatment provider to complete an assessment about my substance use and needs. Date: _______________________
  • My treatment provider helped me develop a treatment plan with goals to work through during the next phases. Date: _______________________

Long-Term Solution:

Revisit the entire phase structure and insert checklists and/or objective measurements to define progress that promotes engagement rather than control. These fixes will ensure that the team is measuring actual progress by the youth and that the progress being made is focused on engagement rather than control.

“In an effort to address some of the issues raised in the blog and as a result of our participation in the JDC Learning Collaborative, our JDC has recently implemented a revised phase structure for our program.  Overall, we have reduced the number of required phases from 4 to 3 and have tried to shorten the time a youth should remain in each phase.  In addition, we have focused on creating identifiable and objective goals for each phase and developed task checklists to help us more objectively monitor progress within each phase.  We have also implemented a new incentives program to help us motivate youths to engage and to comply with the program requirements by rewarding good behavior rather than relying too heavily on sanctions (although a graduated sanctions approach continues to be part of our program). 

Specifically with regard to phase 1 (which we call the “Orientation Phase”), we focus on helping the youth become familiar with the basic requirements of the program and the JDC team members; identify their treatment goals; and develop a plan for achieving the identified goals, including a substance abuse treatment plan which is developed after a substance abuse assessment is completed.  We do require some minimal (not perfect) compliance with court orders before the youth is eligible to move to phase 2 (the “Engagement Phase”), and we tell the youth that they should be eligible for promotion to phase 2 within one to two months of admission into the JDC program.”

Matthew J. Viola
Presiding Judge
Juvenile Drug Court of the First Circuit Court, State of Hawaii