March | April 2020

Research Central: Assessing the Impact of a Graduated Response Approach for Youth in the Maryland Juvenile Justice System

Between 1997 and 2017, the number of youth held in juvenile residential facilities nationwide decreased 59 percent. Despite this progress, challenges remain. Violations of the requirements of court-ordered community supervision—such as skipping school and missing appointments with a probation officer—are a major contributing factor to the placement of young people, particularly youth of color.

Graduated response approaches, which use a range of sanctions for violations and incentives for continued progress, offer a promising avenue for holding youth accountable and promoting prosocial behavior without relying on detention and incarceration. These approaches have been found to improve outcomes for adult and juvenile drug offenders. However, very little research has established the effectiveness of these approaches with juvenile offenders more generally.

To address this information gap, OJJDP in fiscal year 2016 funded a research study that examined the Accountability and Incentives Management system (AIM), launched by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services in 2015. AIM provides structured guidance tools to case managers in responding to youth behavior. The tools offer a range of options to tailor sanctions and incentives to individual youth. AIM training generally has focused on the need for responses to be certain, swift, and proportionate to the behavior to achieve positive results.

The study sample included 1,983 youth who started and ended community supervision between Nov. 1, 2015, and Oct. 31, 2017. Of those youth, 80.7 percent were male, 68.9 percent were black, and 24.7 percent were white. The average age at the start of supervision was 16. Most youth (90.8 percent) were under probation supervision, and 9.2 percent were under aftercare supervision.

Researchers compared this group with a group of youth supervised before AIM was implemented. They used a technique known as propensity score matching to ensure the two groups were statistically equivalent on a variety of demographic and other variables, such as offense, risk level, and treatment needs. The study capitalized on the comprehensive data collected in the Department of Juvenile Services’ information systems, including data related to AIM implementation.

The research study included the following questions:

  • To what extent did case managers implement AIM as intended?
  • Did the implementation of AIM improve outcomes for youth under community supervision?

The study found that just over half of youth supervised with AIM in place received at least one sanction or incentive during their supervision. Responses to positive and negative behaviors were applied relatively swiftly—within 3 days on average—and staff followed the structured guidance for sanctions in almost all of their decisions.

Sanctions were more commonly applied than incentives, countering the generally recommended practice of a 4:1 ratio between incentives and sanctions. The most common incentive was verbal praise. These findings suggest that staff would benefit from additional training and coaching to reinforce the use of incentives, including those that increase privileges or decrease restrictions and supervision levels.

Among the most promising findings were those related to youth outcomes. Youth supervised following AIM implementation were significantly less likely to have a violation of probation filed with the court, be placed in a committed residential placement, or commit an offense resulting in adjudication during supervision, relative to the comparison group.

One goal of AIM was to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the Department of Juvenile Services’ detention and committed population. Study findings showed that, among youth who received a graduated response, black youth were more likely than white youth to receive sanctions over incentives. However, the outcomes of AIM did not vary by race; both groups were less likely to have a violation of probation filed with AIM in place.


The report Assessing the Impact of a Graduated Response Approach for Youth in the Maryland Juvenile Justice System is available online.