Structured Decision Making in Juvenile Courts

Rosemary Sarri, University of Michigan

Structured decision making (SDM) has been promoted as a procedure for systematizing decision making in the juvenile justice system for risk and needs assessment in various stages of processing youth. SDM is a formal and standardized procedures intended to guide decision makers by defining the criteria they must use in their decisions. It is thought that the use of structured decision making would aid in assuring fairness, equity and accountability in court processing and disposition. Several factors have led to increased use of standardized decision making: large caseloads and time limits on processing, increased alternative options for dispositions, pressure to achieve individual accountability, need to delegate decision making to specially trained staff, and complex decision making in cases of mental illness, substance abuse and developmental disability. This paper reports on a study of the use of SDM in twelve courts in four states where there has been substantial recent change in the statutes that influence the decision options available to the court. Because of greater statutory specification in disposition options, in the discretion of prosecutors and in funding restrictions, there are increasingly fewer opportunities for objective assessment of risks and needs. As a result SDM is often limited to decision making regarding the type of probation supervision, detention decision making and for monitoring and evaluation of decision making. It also was used in a more heuristic manner rather that as a systematic device in decision making.

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Updated 05/20/2006