PA Improves Juvenile Justice with Evidence-based Programs

Posted by L Moore and LA Cook

Dec 8, 2014 10:00:00 AM

The state of Pennsylvania adopted a new strategy in 2012 to improve its juvenile justice system. It was intent on following the precepts of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Balanced and Restorative Justice philosophy, which seeks to help young offenders and their families while protecting the community.  

As part of this goal, a conference is held annually to share ideas, study results, and run workshops highlighting the practices, programs, and initiatives provided across the state. A part of this year’s theme was “The Right Service for the Right Youth for the Right Amount of Time.”

One way the state hopes to achieve that is by helping individual counties to work collaboratively across their juvenile-probation offices, children and youth services, and children and adolescent behavior and mental health services. When the level of services provided to an adolescent and his/her family is correctly matched to the level of need, young offenders can be maintained safely in their homes, and we can reduce the cost of outside placements.

A report from the 2009 meeting delivered a powerful presentation on the Youth Level of Service/Case Management Inventory (YLS/CMI), a key actuarial assessment tool used across Pennsylvania to make sure the right level of service is being delivered to those who need it. 

Among the findings of particular interest were:

  • Incarceration does not have a significant effect on reoffending (Gatti, Tremblay et al., 2009). Locking up kids doesn’t lower the risk of them committing crimes again.
  • Mixing more antisocial offenders with lower-risk youth can turn the latter into better criminals.
  • When community services address why a youth commits crimes, it lowers the chance of repeat offending.
  • In other words, the right services for the right youths.

Furthermore, cost/benefit research showed that for every $1 spent for Functional Family Therapy (FFT), savings of $28.34 were realized. The savings associated with Multisystemic Therapy (MST) were $28.81. And how about the Scared Straight method? Communities can figure a loss of $477.75.

Pennsylvania’s approach to addressing youth offenders is encouraging evidence-based treatment programs such as FFT and MST. Both are fully supported by research, offering whole packages that work with families in their homes and communities and building the caregiver’s skills to better manage their own child’s anti-social behaviors. Currently. FFT and MST are available in many counties in the state as part of the continuum of services. The EPISCenter works with stakeholders to support their implementation and sustainability.

 A key to this work is partnering with providers and developers so that all stakeholders understand how these programs work and which youth are best served by which service. Conversations to educate stakeholders are typically driven by data, reported by MST and FFT providers through the INSPIRE system, and address referrals, length of services, and youth-risk levels.

As Pennsylvania continues its efforts to be one of the national leaders and innovators on reducing recidivism rates and harm using researched-based practices, ongoing partnerships with programs such as MST and FFT can only serve to strengthen the Juvenile Justice System Enhancement strategy. 

To find out more about MST and FFT, visit

Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform