Graduated Response Systems

The development of a Graduated Response System is a Stage Three: Behavioral Change activity within Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Justice System Enhancement Strategy (JJSES).

Graduated response systems provide empirically based strategies for responding effectively to youths’ behaviors. Incremental, proportionate, and predictable responses are delivered so that youths’ positive behaviors are encouraged and reinforced, and negative, noncompliant behaviors are discouraged and met with consequences that hold youth accountable.  Graduated response systems in juvenile probation foster positive behavior change to facilitate youths’ successful completion of probation, an approach that helps youth become productive, law-abiding citizens and prevents the unnecessary use of detention and residential placement.

Simply described, graduated response systems encourage compliant behaviors by providing incentives, and discourage noncompliant behaviors by providing sanctions in a structured, systematic, and fair manner.  Incentives generally take one of two forms. Something positive can be given (e.g., verbal acknowledgement, a certificate, a book), or something considered by the youth to be negative can be taken away or diminished (e.g., easing curfew restrictions, fewer reporting requirements).  Conversely, sanctions are designed to impose undesirable consequences to hold youth accountable for non-compliant behaviors, and may include responses such as verbal reprimand, writing assignments (thinking reports), curfew restrictions, increased reporting requirements, restriction of activities, or extension of period of probation supervision.   
Graduated Response Systems and Adolescent Development
Important neurological changes take place in the brain during adolescence, which means that youths’ cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional functioning are still developing. Importantly, the areas that govern impulse control, reasoning, problem solving, and emotion regulation are still developing during adolescence. Other neurological characteristics of the teenage years make youth particularly sensitive to the anticipation and delivery of rewards and to valuing potential short-term, positive consequences of behaviors over long-term negative outcomes. Graduated response systems can help youth successfully complete probation by providing responses to behaviors that are grounded in research on adolescent development and decision making.
Empirical Basis for Graduated Response Systems
Promoting behavior change by providing incentives and sanctions for desired and undesired behaviors, respectively, is not a new approach. Indeed, many of the important components of graduated response systems rely on instrumental learning and operant conditioning principles, theories with nearly a century of support.  Across settings and populations, including school classrooms and adolescent substance use treatment programs, as well as among youth with behavioral concerns, research has demonstrated that these principles effectively promote positive behavior change. Research also has indicated that although incentives and sanctions should be used in combination, the ratio should significantly favor incentives; to successfully promote positive behaviors and inhibit negative behaviors, researchers have suggested that responses should be delivered in a ratio of 4 incentives to 1 sanction.
Research suggests that responses are most effective in shaping behaviors if they are:
  • Predictable – Responses should be delivered such that if an identified behavior occurs, a specific response then occurs
  • Immediate – Responses should be delivered as soon as possible after the behavior occurs
  • Targeted – Responses should be given only when a specified behavior is performed
  • Proportionate – Severity and type of responses should match the severity and type of behavior exhibited
  • Fair – Responses should be delivered in a transparent and equitable manner to encourage youths’ trust in the probation process

For additional information on Graduated Response Systems you are encouraged to review the following documents & video:
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