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Graduated Sanctions



Graduated sanctions properly refer to the continuum of disposition options that juvenile court judges and court staff have at their disposal (Juvenile Sanctions Center, 2002). However, sanctions provide only the context for service delivery; it is the programs that address the underlying family, school, peer group, and individual problems that are most likely to produce change in offenders. For a graduated-sanctions system to fulfill its promise, methods must be employed to ensure that the juveniles most likely to benefit are linked to a broad range of effective programs that address their specific problems.

The ideal graduated-sanctions system should provide five levels of sanctions (Howell, 1995; Wilson and Howell, 1993), first stepping offenders up from least to most restrictive sanctions, culminating in secure correctional confinement, then stepping them down to least restrictive options in an aftercare format:

  1. Immediate intervention with first-time delinquent offenders (misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies) and nonserious repeat offenders (examples include teen court, diversion, and regular probation).
  2. Intermediate sanctions for first-time serious or violent offenders and also chronic and serious/violent offenders (intensive probation supervision is a main example).
  3. Community confinement (secure and nonsecure residential community-based programs are examples).
  4. Secure corrections for the most serious, violent, chronic offenders (e.g., training schools).
  5. Aftercare (consisting of a continuum of court-based step-down program options that culminate in discharge).

These gradations—and the sublevels that can be crafted within them—form a continuum of sanction options that should be paralleled by a continuum of treatment options, to create an array of referral and disposition resources for law enforcement, juvenile and family courts, and juvenile corrections officials. The effectiveness of graduated sanctions when used in conjunction with treatment programs is demonstrated by research on juvenile offenders, nationwide program assessments, and a number of state and local program and policy studies (Howell, 2003a, 2003b: Juvenile Sanctions Center, 2002). Several examples are in this compendium, including the San Diego County Breaking Cycles Program, the San Diego Repeat Offender Prevention Program, the 8% Early Intervention Program, Intensive Probation Supervision (Cuyahoga County, Ohio) and the Gang Violence Reduction Program.

As offenders’ delinquent careers become progressively more serious and they are moved to more restrictive levels in a graduated-sanctions system, the rehabilitation programs linked with them must be more structured and intensive to deal effectively with the multiple treatment needs typical of offender careers. Multiple-problem youth—those experiencing a combination of mental health and school problems along with drug use, gang involvement, and personal victimization, in particular—are at greatest risk for continued and escalating offending.

Four main “structured decision-making” tools are available for improving juvenile justice system programming in a graduated-sanctions framework: risk assessment, needs/strengths assessment, a disposition matrix for linking offenders with a continuum of sanctions and programs, and a protocol for evaluating programs against the most effective evaluated programs. These structured decision-making tools are available (Juvenile Sanctions Center, 2002) to assist juvenile justice system professionals in developing a continuum of graduated sanctions that can be linked with a continuum of treatment options, both components of which can be matched with considerable precision to offenders’ recidivism risk level and treatment needs. However, effective programs must be used if the graduated-sanctions system and linked interventions can be expected to produce worthwhile positive outcomes.

Risk Factors


Antisocial/delinquent beliefs

Drug dealing

Gang involvement in adolescence

General delinquency involvement

High alcohol/drug use

High drug dealing

Illegal gun ownership/carrying

Physical violence/aggression

Violent victimization


Delinquent siblings

Lack of orderly and structured activities within the family

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 parent college expectations for child

Low school attachment/bonding/motivation/commitment to school

Poor school attitude/performance; academic failure


Economic deprivation/poverty/residence in a disadvantaged neighborhood

Exposure to violence and racial prejudice

Neighborhood youth in trouble


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

Association with gang-involved peers/relatives

Peer alcohol/drug use


National Study Group on Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders: Promising program structure


Howell, J. C. (2009). Preventing and Reducing Juvenile Delinquency: A Comprehensive Framework. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Howell, J. C. (2003). “Diffusing Research Into Practice Using the Comprehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders.” Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 1(3):219–245.

Juvenile Sanctions Center. (2002). Graduated Sanctions for Juvenile Offenders: A Program Model and Planning Guide. Reno, NV: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Wilson, J. J., and Howell, J. C. (1993). A Comprehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Date Created: April 7, 2021