Franklin County Juvenile Court Shifts Course, Eliminating Probation Officers

Dec 4, 2019

Whitney Randolph goes into work every day knowing her job is coming to an end in a few months. Her Franklin County courtroom office has expansive windows that overlook the city.

“Technically, it’s my department that’s going,” Randolph says with a laugh. “If you choose to stay and reapply for the new positions, you know there’s probably a job for you.”

She’s been the chief probation officer for the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Domestic Relations and Juvenile Division for two years. Her job and the jobs of other probation officers are being replaced with what the judges call "rehabilitation specialists."

Current probation officers can reapply, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be hired.

“I would hope I interview and interview well. I passed the test the first time for the chief,” Randolph explains. “So I do hope I still have something to give.”

Their current positions will be eliminated by March to make way for a juvenile justice structure administrators hope will better help rehabilitate kids.

Franklin County is overhauling a system that processes hundreds of kids every year. Judges involved say it is fundamentally broken, so they’re eliminating dozens of jobs and starting from scratch.

Rehabilitation, Not Punishment

Judge Kim Browne says the traditional probation officer position is outdated.

A sign for the Franklin County Domestic Relations and Juvenile Court in Columbus.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU

“The old position description has basically three sentences in it,” Browne says. “And it talks about corrections models and monitoring kids and it talks about a caseload that’s kind of on the hefty to moderate side. That’s what’s wrong with it.”

Browne is the administrative judge of the Domestic Relations Division and Juvenile Branch for Franklin County Courts. She and Lead Juvenile Judge Elizabeth Gill say the new rehabilitation specialists will take on more of a mentor role and try to talk to kids instead of sending them straight to a judge.

Specialists will be encouraged to focus on behavioral and cognitive therapy instead of crime and punishment.

“What happened in the criminalization of juvenile matters is youth who are on probation are getting criminalized for doing things that 'normal' teens do like skipping school, like smoking pot,” Gill says.

Browne and Gill say that data shows kids should have as little contact with the courts as possible for improved outcomes. They are basing their findings off the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, an effort by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to reduce detention facility populations.

It’s something the Franklin County juvenile court system has been trying to achieve gradually over the past 10 years. The system overhaul of getting rid of probation officers is another, larger step.

In 2009, Franklin County had 1,208 juvenile cases referred to probation. In 2018, that number was 498, a drop of 58.8%. The amount of juvenile court cases referred to probation has been decreasing yearly by an average of 71 cases per year, while the length of probation has decreased as well.

People wait at the Franklin County courthouse.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU

Browne argues that the juvenile justice system’s job is to rehabilitate youth - and that punitive measures hurt those efforts.

“They always go back to the community. There is no juvenile life here,” Browne says. “The child is going to come back to the community. And it’s our obligation to make sure the kids come back to our communities better, not worse.”

Uncertainty For Officers

The new model might be seen as more progressive, but it still has current probation officers worried about their jobs. Franklin County listed 64 positions under the old table of organization. According to Browne, some of those positions are currently unoccupied, and a few more positions will be vacated through natural attrition in the next few months.

Under the new system, there will be 54 jobs. The budget for the old and new systems remain the same.

No probation officers under Randolph agreed to talk with WOSU for this story. 

“Anything about not knowing how you’re going to pay your bill or support your family can be absolutely scary. But that’s just what the world is,” Randolph says. “Nothing in life is guaranteed except for death, that’s what I always say.”

Most referrals to the juvenile court come from probation violations. Even though the overhaul is scary, Randolph says that if it means fewer kids have to go through the system, it’s for the best.

“I don’t think you would see any P.O. cry if all of our jobs went away but there was no kids on probation,” Randolph says.

Gill says although the court has been heading in a less punitive direction for a while, about 80% of its caseload is still African American boys or people from struggling socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Even though we’ve done remarkable things in reducing our caseloads and reducing the youth we’re incarcerating, we’re not making a dent in the racial and ethnic disparities in the youth that we see,” Gill says. “The greatest portion of our youth are youth of color.”

She and Browne are confident that by the end of 2020, local data will show a decrease in racial disparities in the juvenile court.