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Comprehensive Juvenile Justice System Study
Introduction & Recommendations

The recommendations presented in this Section are based on the mission and philosophy of juvenile justice established by Lancaster County, and the system assessment presented in the previous Section. The set of recommendations address three major objectives:

  • Improving Service Provision and Coordination
  • Building out a Continuum of Detention Services
  • Minimizing the Number of Secure Residential Beds Needed in the Future


The system assessment indicated that youth involved in the juvenile justice system are often involved with several agencies within the community. The juvenile justice system is part of a larger network of care that involves many local agencies that work with at-risk youth and their families. Comprehensive approaches to delinquency prevention and intervention requires collaboration between the juvenile justice system and other service providers, including health, law enforcement, child welfare, and education. Mechanisms that effectively enhance and link these service agencies, as well as the juvenile justice system agencies, are necessary components of a long range community strategy to reduce juvenile delinquency.

The specific recommendations for improving service provision and coordination are:

  • Recommendation 1: Develop Assessment Center

    Currently in Lancaster County when law enforcement officers pick up juveniles, they have to drive around trying to determine the appropriate means of dealing with the offender. To maximize the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system and ensure that appropriate decisions are made, an Assessment Center is needed. This would ensure that children are handled appropriately and reduce down-time for officers. The diagnostic assessment is crucial due to the wide range of individual situations and social/psychological factors which contribute to a youth's well-being. It also forms the basis for the initial placement decision. Assessment should include the following:

    • Psychiatric assessment if indicated
    • Medical Examination
    • Delinquent Career - arrests; incarcerations, self-report
    • Family - composition and interaction, background, criminal history, abuse and neglect, etc.
    • Education - achievement, involvement, attitude, school environment
    • Peers - type of friends, peer pressures
    • Coping - support systems, accountability, reinforcement
    • Interpersonal Skills - social functioning, sexual, making friends, and use of community services
    • Employment - job skills, work experience, expectations
    • Move Youth Along Continuum

    Currently, most systems of treatment have multiple and decentralized points of entry. This approach leads to fragmentation of services and intensifies the dilemmas inherent in implementing a comprehensive case management system. Too often, youth enter the same system repeatedly, but through different "doors". In this situation, it may take months, if at all, for service providers to realize that one youth is receiving similar or the same services from two or more providers. In some cases, however, it may not be feasible for a system's single point of entry to be an actual "physical" point of entry. Rather, a "virtual" option could be employed in which information gathered at one location, could be shared (presumably on a need to know and right to know basis) with other service providers, via a system wide multi-agency management information system. An assessment center could be the coordination point for youth involved with the juvenile justice and other treatment providers in the community.

    A juvenile justice system equipped with the resources and knowledge to match juveniles with appropriate treatment programs while holding them accountable can have a positive and lasting impact on the reduction of delinquency. Identifying and providing community-based alternatives to confinement is often preferable and cost-effective. Developing effective case management and management information systems (MIS) will be integral to this effort.

    Some critics say that assessment centers, through a net widening effect, may lead to an overwhelming burden on the juvenile justice system, especially if the assessment center is considered by law enforcement to be a "quick drop-off point" or a less stigmatizing way of bringing a youth into the juvenile justice system or treatment realm. Procedures for use of the assessment center must be clearly established at the outset to ensure that a "net widening" effect does not occur.

  • Recommendation 2: Implement Risk Assessment Instrument

    Communities developing a graduated sanctions system need tools to determine which and how many youth should be placed at each security level in the continuum of care. In an effective juvenile justice system, risk-focused classifications are used to make placements for juvenile offenders on the basis of clearly designed, objective criteria. These criteria focus on the following:

    1. the seriousness of the delinquent act;
    2. the potential for reoffending based on the presence of risk factors; and
    3. the risk to public safety.

    In addition to these goals, objective risk classification can prove useful for reducing bias in placement decision making, particularly in light of the disproportionate incarceration rates among minority populations.

    Formal risk assessment tools should be used to aid consistency in decision-making and increase the level of diversion. A single, integrated set of criteria for assessing the risks from and the needs of youth is essential in order to reserve secure detention bedspace for youth who truly pose a public safety risk. Research by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) suggests that formal, quantitative assessment methods demonstrate a reasonable degree of accuracy in estimating risk levels for aggregated juvenile offender populations.

    Classification and risk assessment should be conducted on each juvenile who enters the system. The risk assessment would also serve as a basis for the determination of graduated sanctions for offenders.

    Sample risk assessment instruments are included in Appendix A.

  • Recommendation 3: Enhance Juvenile Caseflow Management

    In order to reduce the heavy caseload in the juvenile court, the following should be eliminated or reduced:

    • Second Detention Hearings - Eliminate detention hearings upon return from evaluations to reduce caseload and help speed case processing time.
    • Probation Review Hearings - Eliminate some review hearings for probation cases; handle review hearings internally within the Probation Department.
  • Recommendation 4: Improve Mental Health/Substance Abuse Services

    Mental illness is frequently suggested as a contributing factor in juvenile crime: "While exact prevalence rates are not known, experts in mental health and juvenile justice estimate that the rate of mental disorder among youth in the juvenile justice system is substantially higher than among youth in the general population. Additionally, although information on the specific types of conduct disorder are typically lacking, it seems safe to assume that at least one-fifth, and perhaps as much as 60%, of the youth in the juvenile justice system can be diagnosed as having a conduct disorder (The National Coalition for the Mentally Ill in the Criminal Justice System, 1992). A recent assessment conducted in the State of Virginia revealed that more than 75% of all youth in the State's 17 secure detention facilities exhibited at least one diagnosable mental disorder. Of that number, 8 to 10 percent had mental health needs described in the study as "serious" and 39% were assessed as having needs in the moderate range (Virginia Policy Design Team, 1994).

    Representatives throughout the juvenile justice system in Lancaster County identified the need for a facility to handle offenders with mental health needs as one of the major necessities within the Lancaster County juvenile justice system. Currently these youth are being housed within the Youth Services Center due to the lack of an alternative facility. Expansion in community based programs is also needed.

    Consideration should also be given to enhancing both residential and community-based substance abuse resources. Service providers and probation staff indicated that there are wait lists for many substance abuse programs.

  • Recommendation 5: Enhance Probation Supervisor

    Probation is the outcome for the vast majority of youth adjudicated delinquent. This aspect of the juvenile justice system is critically important and should be enhanced as follows:

    1. Supervision - Uniform procedures are needed for probation supervision. All staff should adhere to the procedures for number of contacts with youth on supervision.
    2. Management Reporting - The Probation Department should track average length of time on probation, average caseload, probation admissions, and completion rates to aid in resource allocation.
    3. Caseload - The juvenile probation caseloads are too high to provide quality services - (currently up to 70 cases). National standards are: Low ratio - 12 to 1; Medium ratio - 25 to 1; and High ratio - 40 to 1. The County should consider adding additional juvenile probation officers to reduce the caseloads down to a maximum of 40 to 1.
    4. Hours of Operation - The Probation Department should consider implementing work hours for some juvenile probation staff that are more conducive to client needs - split schedules between 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
    5. Boarding Contracts - A placement review committee could be used as an oversight body to verify all decisions for out of home placements, and monitor children already in placement to ensure that the length of stay is not excessive.
  • Recommendation 6: Improve Data and Reporting Procedures
    1. Coordination/Enhancement of Record-keeping - Juvenile justice data is being maintained manually, and is fragmented, inconsistent, and difficult to access. The County can not make informed decisions without readily available information. A plan should be developed for improving record-keeping and reporting to support a case management approach. The goal is to have access to information that will allow the County and associated agencies to offer the best services, and to monitor the results of their actions over time.

      To effectively monitor a youth's progress through multiple treatment programs, possibly in different systems, an infrastructure that has the potential to support integrated case management should be in place. Additionally, treatment history and prior contact information should be integrated into one system so that professionals performing assessments and designing a treatment plan can be quickly made aware of previous intervention attempts, thereby helping them identify problem areas and needs. Ideally, the information system should have the capability of:

      1. receiving and cataloging case manager-collected progress updates from community service providers; and
      2. compiling data for reporting on the problems of youth in the community (needs), the levels of success in placing youth in needed services (service gaps), and the success of those treatment programs (priliminary outcomes).

      This type of reporting has the potential to help communities identify gaps and redundancies in services and promotes accountability within the system.

    2. Reporting Procedures and Definitions - Uniform definitions are needed throughout the juvenile justice system to ensure consistency and the ability to track an offender through the system.
    3. Probation - The Probation Department should improve management reporting. Specific data needs for this department were outlined above.
    4. Law Enforcement - Law enforcement should maintain data on juveniles picked up as runaways, loitering, and youth that would be violating curfew if a curfew law is implemented.
    5. Recidivism/Program Performance - Track Recidivism, defined as further court involvement, for each program to determine the success in rehabilitating offenders. The County can not determine whether or not community-based programs being utilized are effective without information on recidivism.
    6. Cost Data - Information on per diem costs is difficult to obtain, and should be available for all programs used by the County.
    7. Detention Data - Some of the detention data being maintained is unreliable. For example, admission data is not accurate because youth admissions are frequently "double counted". If a youth goes to LRC for a 3 day evaluation, then returns to the Youth Services Center, another admission is counted. In addition, information about status in detention (pre-adjudicated, adjudicated waiting disposition or placement, etc.) is not readily available.
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