Juvenile Court

E. Disposition

In the disposition hearing, like sentencing in the adult system, the judge decides case outcomes. Some states require separate adjudication and disposition hearings; in other states the disposition hearing immediately follows adjudication. Prior to pronouncing the disposition, the judge consults the predisposition report, prepared by a probation officer. The predisposition report is a presentence investigation that includes the social history of the juvenile. Many factors in the report are presented to the judge, including the nature of the offense, the delinquency record, school record, family history, and psychological evaluation, and the probation officer’s assessment of the juvenile’s amenability to treatment. The report can also include mitigating and aggravating factors, such as gang involvement or premeditation. Not surprisingly, there is wide variation in the amount of information and scope of such reports. Finally, the probation officer makes a recommendation about the outcome and treatment plan. In most states, the judge is not supposed to see the predisposition report or know the probation officer’s recommendation until the juvenile is found delinquent. Given the close relationship between the judge and juvenile court officers, however, the court officers often share this information informally.

Several dispositional outcomes are available to the juvenile court, but the resources for treatment vary by community (urban, suburban, or rural). Thus, depending on where the juvenile receives the disposition, two juveniles with similar backgrounds, offenses, and delinquency records may receive very different outcomes. This is referred to as justice by geography. In general, there is a continuum of dispositional outcomes, from informal probation to long-term secure custody. First-time offenders get less restrictive outcomes, unless the offense is particularly serious. As juveniles reoffend, extending their delinquency records, the dispositional options become more formal and punitive, especially if juveniles appear unwilling to accept treatment.

Probation can be informal (under no disposition order) or formal (decreed by disposition). Informal probation can be very simple, for example, no arrests or referrals for a set period. It can also be a more formal probation, in which the juvenile must meet several demands or risk continuing through the juvenile court process. Probation generally involves attending school, meeting curfews, making restitution to victims, performing community service, and undergoing behavioral or substance abuse therapy. The possible conditions are endless, but most juvenile courts have some kind of general probationary guidelines in place. Some probation officers use a certified risk assessment instrument to score the juvenile’s needs and apply the appropriate probation plan. Many states now include intensive probation that uses global positioning system monitoring and frequent house visits by the probation officer. Should a juvenile violate the terms of the probation, the probation officer applies to revoke the probation and reinstitute the formal process.

If probation fails to reform, or the offense is serious enough, juveniles may face placement in an institutional setting, which can range from open residential facilities to secure confinement. At the soft end of confinement, juveniles may be sent to treatment programs that use the cottage-style residence. These are often located in rural settings, like the houses of refuge, and such places teach behavior modification, therapy, conflict resolution, and improving self-esteem. Many such programs are privately run and contracted by the state. If juveniles successfully complete the program, they are returned to their families and communities.

Juveniles who are considered beyond treatment or who commit serious crimes are sent to juvenile correctional facilities, which almost always are run by the state. These institutions do provide some treatment programs and education; however, they often resemble adult prisons in physical arrangement and operation. Such facilities represent the most severe dispositional outcome.

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