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Since 2010, with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Vera’s Center on Youth Justice has provided research support and technical assistance to the New York City Department of Probation (DOP) to plan juvenile sentencing (dispositional) reforms with the goal of minimizing the number of young people removed from their homes following a finding of guilt.

In 2012, the DOP implemented two new tools—the Youth Level of Services Inventory (YLS) risk assessment and the Structured Decision-Making (SDM) grid—to help inform dispositional recommendations to the court  in juvenile delinquency cases. Dispositions increase in severity as the current offense and risk of reoffending increases.

To learn about and monitor the implementation process, Vera is working closely with DOP to identify when a judge overrides or disagrees with the recommended disposition. This monitoring is critical to understanding why an override may occur and make informed changes either to the tools or to the protocols and practices that govern their use.

In addition, Vera is conducting observations of dispositional hearings and interviewing DOP staff, prosecutors, and defense attorneys about the process’s strengths and weaknesses. Finally, a series of Implementation Working Groups comprised of stakeholders are examining how well the process is working in practice.

SDM is based on the concept that a young person’s disposition should take both risk of re-offending (as measured by the YLS) and the offense charged into consideration, not one or the other. Furthermore, the needs of the young person are accounted for in the service planning of the case after disposition.

Additionally, in New York City, the SDM grid limits the recommendation of placement (the most severe disposition) to a very specific charge severity and risk level and expands the options for Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal and Conditional Discharge recommendations. This ensures that placement is reserved for the youth who pose the highest risk to public safety.