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San Diego County Breaking Cycles



The San Diego County Breaking Cycles program consists of two main components: prevention and graduated sanctions. The prevention component targets youths who have not yet entered the juvenile justice system but evidence problem behaviors (chronic disobedience to parents, curfew violations, repeated truancy, running away from home, drug and alcohol use, and other behavior problems). Five strategically located Community Assessment Teams (CATs) provide referrals and services to at-risk youths and their families throughout the county. Youths at risk of referral to the juvenile justice system are referred to the CATs. For each such youth, a team composed of a coordinator, probation officers, case managers, and other experts conducts a comprehensive youth and family assessment. The results of this assessment guide the development of either a case management plan (for a long-term client) or referral to community agencies (for a short-term client).

Youths in the second target group—those in juvenile court for delinquency involvement—access the graduated-sanctions component of Breaking Cycles only through a valid juvenile court placement decision. A Breaking Cycles case plan is developed for each youth. The case plan is family-centered and strengths-based and is designed to promote accountability, rehabilitation, and community protection. Most of the youths in this program begin their rehabilitative process in a highly structured institutional setting and are stepped down to lower levels of program structure and supervision (i.e., community-based programs and home placement) as reassessments are made. Youths may also be stepped up from initial less restrictive placements or after having been stepped down to lower levels—again, depending on reassessment results. Wraparound services were effective. Wraparound is a strengths-based, family-centered approach that seeks a balance between formal services and natural supports that continue to support the family when formal services are no longer needed. Wraparound provided the probation officer with flexibility and innovation to assist youth and families. Service plans were designed to meet the individual needs rather than match the youth to a menu of preestablished services.

The reentry programming of Breaking Cycles is embedded in the graduated-sanctions component of the program. Youths are assigned for variable lengths of program participation—90, 150, 240, or 365 days—depending on risk severity and treatment needs. The following continuum of placement options is used under the umbrella of “commitment programming,” with case management provided by juvenile court staff:

  • Institutional placement (e.g., secure custody in a juvenile ranch facility for boys or a girls’ rehabilitation facility)
  • Community-based placement (e.g., day treatment in the Reflections Program)
  • Home placement (e.g., intensive, in-home services)

Each of these intervention levels is linked with community programs and resources that are needed to carry out the comprehensive treatment plan through a multidisciplinary team approach composed of probation department staff, alcohol and drug specialists, mental health practitioners, and youth and family counselors in the Repeat Offender Prevention Program (ROPP) (see separate description in this compendium). Providing aftercare services in court-based programs is a cost-effective alternative to the creation of a parallel set of programs for reentry services. The Family and Community Team OutReach (FACTOR) Center was also effective (see separate description in this compendium of the San Diego Repeat Offender Prevention Program).

An evaluation of the Breaking Cycles program found that the graduated-sanctions component was effective in keeping offenders from progressing to more serious delinquency. The system of graduated sanctions effectively gave probation officers referral (from home placement to confinement) and custody time options, enabling them to hold offenders accountable. Regardless of commitment length, youths in the Breaking Cycles program were less likely than control group youths either to have court referrals for felony offenses or to be adjudicated for felony offenses during the 18-month follow-up period. Breaking Cycles youths also were less likely to be committed to long-term state correctional facilities. Moreover, at follow-up, Breaking Cycles youths were more likely to be enrolled in school and less likely to be using alcohol or drugs.

Risk Factors


Antisocial/delinquent beliefs

Conduct disorders (authority conflict/rebellious/stubborn/disruptive/antisocial)

Gang involvement in adolescence

General delinquency involvement

High alcohol/drug use

Lack of guilt and empathy

Makes excuses for delinquent behavior (neutralization)

Mental health problems

Physical violence/aggression

Violent victimization


Child maltreatment (abuse or neglect)

Delinquent siblings

Family violence (child maltreatment, partner violence, conflict)

Lack of orderly and structured activities within the family

Parental use of physical punishment/harsh and/or erratic discipline practices

Poor parental supervision (control, monitoring, and child management)


Frequent school transitions

Frequent truancy/absences/suspensions; expelled from school; dropping out of school

Low academic aspirations

Low school attachment/bonding/motivation/commitment to school

Poor school attitude/performance; academic failure


Association with antisocial/aggressive/delinquent peers; high peer delinquency

Peer rejection


National Gang Center: Effective program


Andria Del Real
4271 Cajon Boulevard, Suite 101
San Diego, CA 92105
Phone: (619) 283-9624


Burke, C., and Pennell, S. (2001). “Breaking Cycles Evaluation: A Comprehensive Approach to Youthful Offenders.” San Diego, CA: San Diego Association of Governments.

Howell, J. C., Lipsey, M. W., & Wilson, J. J. (2014). A handbook for evidence-based juvenile justice systems. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books

Date Created: April 7, 2021