As many as 80% of adolescents on probation face revocation and punitive sanctions because of non-compliance with probation conditions. That is, many skip school, violate curfew, use drugs, miss probation appointments, or are re-arrested. This paper introduces a novel conceptual framework, case plan comprehension, to explain adolescent non-compliance. Informed by legal comprehension theory, goal setting theory, and research into adolescent development, the case plan comprehension framework hypothesizes that adolescent knowledge about their probation conditions will be associated with compliance. Three questions motivated the current study: (1) Does case plan comprehension predict adolescent compliance with probation conditions, (2) are these associations moderated by case plan specificity, adolescent age, and developmental maturity, and (3) are these associations moderated by probation and parent external controls?
Probation-involved adolescents (N=101, 15.2 years old, 24% female, 79% African American) were prompted to describe their probation conditions in a condition recall task. Youth-reported conditions were coded for content and specificity. Probation case notes were coded for seven adolescent compliance problems (curfew, home behaviors, school attendance, drug use, reporting to probation meetings, attendance at programs, arrest; κ= .60 - .81). Study data included youth-reported attitudes about probation (2 items), probation efficacy (7-items; α=.77), and deterrence expectations (6-items; α=.87), the parent-reported emotion regulation questionnaire (14-items; α=.88) and parental efficacy scale (7-items; α=.90), probation controls coded from probation case notes (e.g., sanction threats), and cumulative risk coded from court pre-disposition reports (offense history, delinquent peers, drug use, school problems, behavioral problems, anger control). Multi-level logistic regression models (compliance problems nested within youths) estimated the effect of case plan comprehension on 3-month compliance problems. All models controlled for race, cumulative risk, supervision level, and pre-recall compliance.
Youths who recalled specific rather than general conditions were 55% less likely to have compliance problems recorded in their case notes (β=-.79, p<.05). However, adolescents who reported drug use conditions were more likely to have compliance problems recorded in their case notes (OR=4.05, p<.05). The association of condition recall specificity was moderated by age and emotional regulation, but not by probation controls nor by parental efficacy. Specifically, condition recall specificity predicted compliance for youths older than thirteen and for youths with higher scores on the emotion regulation checklist. African American youths were more likely to have compliance problems recorded in case notes (OR= 2.10, p<.01), but this effect was independent of condition recall specificity.
Conclusions and implications
The study supports three basic conclusions: (1) probation officers and others who work with adolescents should engage in specific strategies to strengthen youth comprehension during the case planning process, (2) distinct strategies possibly unrelated to case plan comprehension are needed for adolescents with drug-use problems, for younger adolescents, and for adolescents with poor emotion regulation, and (3) further research is needed to explain the effects of race on adolescent compliance. Specific recommendations for practice and for future research in each of these areas will be discussed.