Affirmative, Next Resort, and Last Resort Decision-Making and Case Planning: A Comment on Juvenile Justice System Penetration

May 20, 2011

[Note: This entry posted on behalf of Thomas Lillis, Deputy Commissioner, Division of Youth Services, Erie County, New York. Mr. Lillis, after many years of dedicated service to the children and families of New York, will be retiring at the end of this month.]

Two of the most misunderstood and misapplied concepts in juvenile justice are motivation and intervention intensity.

When a youth enters a juvenile justice system portal, an assumed or stated expectation is set in motion: an objectionable behavior(s) need(s) to change. Regardless of the assessed needs and risks in the case, two options are generally considered when the degree of behavior change (i.e., “improvement”) is insufficient.

(1) Is the youth insufficiently motivated to change his or her behavior? If so, authority (e.g., juvenile courts, juvenile probation, etc.) can be invoked to make the failure to cooperate and improve more uncomfortable. This is accomplished, ultimately, by raising the prospect of restricted personal freedom via intensive community monitoring or even removal from the community.

(2) Is the intervention insufficiently intense? If so, authority can set expectations for additional or different interventions. Although there is no common professional agreement as to the exact nature of intervention intensity (i.e., the effect of additional or multiple interventions), one can ask: If a youth fails to improve even with increasingly intensive services, does this mean they continue to be under-motivated?

Generally, at juvenile justice decision points, youth penetrate deeper into the system because an identification of continued deficits or deviance influences the system to resort to more intense consequences and interventions.

Seldom does one see a decision rationale or new case plan based affirmatively on what the youth and family may need next to foster positive change. Further, it is rare affirmative decisions and planning focus on helping a youth and his or her family cope with factors that are not going to change dramatically on the juvenile justice time clock – but are likely to change with the more powerful time clock of adolescent development.

As the noted child psychologist, Dr. Ross Greene states, “Most children would do better if they could do better”.

Certainly, risky and dangerous behaviors must be addressed seriously and promptly. However, decisions that involve greater intensity – either to enhance motivation or intervention outcomes – should start with an affirmation of what need will be addressed that may enable better functioning. Further, “intensity” should be operationalized for the case at hand, and it should be made clear to all parties how the change represents more than just the “next resort” or “last resort”. Even the most serious decisions involving removal from the community (e.g., secure placement) should include affirmative reasoning that also will eventually support an affirmative discharge plan.

If reform of juvenile justice congregate care does not squarely face the reality that the decision to remove youth from the community is too often a next resort or last resort rather than a step in an affirmative plan – youth, families and social justice will not be served by “rightsizing” alone.

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