Juvenile Justice System Improvement Project

The Juvenile Justice System Improvement Project (JJSIP) is designed to help states improve outcomes for juvenile offenders by better translating knowledge on “what works” into everyday practice and policy. Launched in August 2011, the JJSIP takes the vast amount of knowledge gained through Dr. Mark Lipsey’s meta-analysis of effective juvenile justice programs and embeds it within the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Comprehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders as developed by Dr. James C. Howell and John Wilson. In doing so, the JJSIP provides a framework for improving practice through the entire continuum of programs and services. Ultimately, the goal of the JJSIP is to reduce crime and delinquency and improve outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Over the past several years, much attention has been given to evidence-based practice in the juvenile justice field as a way to reduce high recidivism rates and other negative outcomes for youth. Resources such as the Blueprints for Violence Prevention and other such enumerations of effective programs have identified evidence-based programs that produce positive outcomes for delinquent and at risk youth.

While our knowledge of effective programs and practices is significant, the current repertoire of identified EBPs has a limited range for the spectrum of services needed, and these programs are often costly. Also, many localities and states struggle with how to implement the findings of evidence-based practice research in an environment where there are existing programs with ties to the community juvenile justice infrastructure. Moreover, when EBPs are implemented, they are often operated in silos with the benefit of research-informed practice accruing only to those youth placed in that particular program. The Juvenile Justice System Improvement Project (JJSIP) is presented as a more holistic approach to ensure that juvenile justice agencies are operating in a research informed and cost effective way to improve outcomes for youth in their care.

The Comprehensive Strategy presents a continuum of care approach, balancing prevention with intervention and a system of graduated sanctions. The framework of this system consists of five levels of interventions, moving from least to most restrictive:

  1. Immediate interventions with first-time minor offenders and non-serious repeat offenders, such as diversion and regular probation.
  2. Intermediate sanctions for first-time serious or violent offenders, and repeat property offenders or drug-involved youth, such as intensive probation supervision.
  3. Community confinement such as secure and non-secure residential community-based programs.
  4. Secure corrections for the most serious, violent, chronic offenders.
  5. Aftercare, consisting of a continuum of court-based step-down program options that culminate in discharge.

Along this continuum, the Comprehensive Strategy distributes program services aimed at changing the behavior of youthful offenders by matching the allocation of those program resources to the risk and needs of the respective juveniles.

Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol (SPEP) for Services to Probation Youth Example

Based on his analysis of over 500 controlled studies of interventions with juvenile offenders, Lipsey developed a Standardized Program Evaluation Protocol (SPEP), a tool for comparing juvenile justice programs to what is found effective in the research. More specifically, the SPEP creates a metric (see graphic below for an example) by assigning points to programs according to how closely their characteristics match those associated with the best recidivism outcomes for similar programs evaluated in research studies. The body of research on programs for juvenile offenders shows that three general characteristics of effective programs are most strongly related to their impact on juvenile delinquency: the type of program, the amount and quality of service actually delivered, and the risk level of the youth in the program.

Lipsey’s meta-analysis work provides specific research-based profiles of program characteristics that can be used both as a “best practices” standard and as a roadmap for improving existing programs. The more closely existing programs resemble programs shown to be effective in the research, the more points a program receives. Higher program scores have equated to greater recidivism reductions in two statewide tests in North Carolina and Arizona. While recidivism is the primary measure used, other important intermediate outcomes and individual indicators, e.g. school enrollment and substance use, can also be tracked. If a program is found to be less than effective, the tool identifies specific areas upon which individual programs can be improved. Using this method, which can be automated in a management information system, juvenile justice administrators and treatment providers can make quality improvements in service delivery without abandoning their existing service model.

Perhaps most importantly, integrating the control and sanctioning functions provided by juvenile justice personnel and the rehabilitative functions of therapeutic treatment providers allows these two distinct professional groups to form a common language for system improvement efforts and an understanding of the measured outcomes of these efforts. The result is a practical approach to creating or refining a continuum of effective services matched to needs and severity of the offender, and a well targeted system of graduated sanctions to provide juvenile justice system control, as needed, to restrain opportunities for offending.

To lay the groundwork for on-site implementation, key stakeholders in each selected state attended a five-day training program at Georgetown University to get a preliminary orientation to the project as well as a thorough grounding in the principles of the Comprehensive Strategy and SPEP tool. Participants left the intensive training with a state specific action plan to:

  • Build and broaden a coalition of support for JJSIP through a trained group of key stakeholders and by providing an orientation/consensus building training for other key players at the state and local levels.
  • Assess the current system capacity related to the core principles of the Comprehensive Strategy framework as well as the current approach to program/quality improvement and outcomes accountability.
  • Refine the Action Plan and implement desired improvements and achieve measurable objectives.
  • Install and implement SPEP
  • Align the SPEP tool with decision-making tools, treatment planning, and probation/parole practice.
  • Train personnel in the use of the instruments.
  • Build and implement strategies for program improvement, including support in maintaining program improvements until they become routine via continuous quality improvement.
  • Proliferate the action plan beyond the targeted jurisdiction and make policy and procedural adaptations.
  • Implement strategies such as leadership development, training of trainers and quality assurance systems to guarantee long term sustainability of the efforts.

The on-site training and technical assistance provided to states includes supporting efforts at each site to implement/improve appropriate and effective risk and needs assessment instruments; integrate risk, needs, and service assessment data into decision-making; develop new collaborative partnerships or relationships; and change the allocation of services to better reflect the risk level of the offenders.

In addition, teams are assessing the gaps in the service system to ensure an adequate service array to meet the needs of juvenile offenders in their jurisdiction. Consultants work with each site to continually monitor the need for resource, policy, procedure, or legal changes to ensure successful implementation of the program.

Intended Short-Term Outcomes

  • Reduced recidivism rates of juvenile offenders.
  • Reduced use of detention, institutionalization and other forms of out of home placement, particularly for lower risk juvenile offenders.

Intended Long-Term Outcomes

  • Reduced racial and ethnic disparities and disproportionality in juvenile justice processing.
  • Increased probation completion rates among juvenile offenders.
  • More efficient use of resources.
  • Decreased school dropout, increased school attendance, increased stability of school placement and increased school performance among juvenile offenders. The educational needs of youth at risk will be addressed.
  • Reduced mental health symptoms and substance abuse among juvenile offenders.
  • Peer-to-Peer Interaction. In addition to the site-specific support, there are also opportunities for the selected states to learn from each other and share experiences.

An evaluation of the program will be completed to measure the effectiveness of the training and technical assistance in changing practices and policies that impact these outcomes. Participating states are expected to use their existing data to measure the extent to which improved youth outcomes are realized.

The following consultants providing technical assistance are national experts in implementing the SPEP tool and/or Comprehensive Strategy:

  • Shay Bilchik, Founder and Director Emeritus, CJJR
  • Michael Umpierre, Director, CJJR
  • Hannah Oppermann, Program Manager, CJJR
  • Dr. Mark Lipsey, Vanderbilt University
  • Dr. Gabrielle Chapman, Vanderbilt University
  • Shawn Peck, SPEP Project Manager, EPIScenter