In 1991, the city of Philadelphia redirected a significant portion of its resources for delinquent youth away from institutional placements to community-based services. As juvenile justice professionals increasingly maintained that incarceration was not the answer for young offenders, city officials sought to improvise new methods of treating and punishing delinquents, from community service to addiction treatment services. While most youths sentenced in Philadelphia are kept within the community, some are sent to residential programs as far away as Colorado and Texas, further diversifying the pool of treatment options.
Within a few years, as crime rates continued to shock citizens and juvenile delinquents became repeat offenders and then habitual criminals, the reaction against community-based sentencing was intense. Since policies regarding juvenile delinquency have historically been based far more on ideology and conventional wisdom than science, ideological backlash to the situation was inevitable. When politicians started to argue that juveniles deserved a crackdown, social workers and officials realized that they needed an accurate and comprehensive standard for measuring the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs in order to make a case for their continuance.
In 1994, the city's Department of Human Services (DHS), Family Court, and the Crime and Justice Research Institute decided to bring a newly scientific approach to juvenile justice, one that would be mostly immune to the pressures of "tough talk" on crime and, instead, focus on hard data. These groups teamed up to create ProDES (The Program Development and Evaluation System), an outcome-based information system that tracks every Philadelphia delinquent in the juvenile justice system and measures his or her program outcomes, regardless of the type or location (even far out of state) of their program. Since the program's inception, ProDES has gathered data on over 20,000 juvenile cases.
Record data is collected immediately after disposition in Juvenile Court, on intake into a specific program, after discharge from the program, and six months after discharge to ensure a long-range picture of juvenile justice efforts through each offender's rehabilitation trajectory. This data, delivered in a series of reports to program administrators, politicians, and other stakeholders, allows juvenile justice professionals to assess the value of different programs for different categories of youth, (i.e., substance abusers, females, violent offenders) and identify the need for new or expanded program resources.
When city officials tried to interpret juvenile justice information before, it was scattered and incomplete. ProDES brings a whole host of variables together, from ethnic makeup of juvenile offenders to their own satisfaction with their programs. In doing so, the city can respond to what works in rehabilitation programs and stop spending time and money on less effective or irrelevant strategies. One report concluded that while many existing programs aim to "build self-esteem" among offenders as a step towards rehabilitation, over 60% of juveniles entering the program already had "high" self-esteem as judged by themselves and appointed psychological professionals. Program directors in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the country have embraced the ability of ProDES to pinpoint the factors that make youth more likely to break the law and the best ways to treat juvenile delinquency, regardless of ideology or conventional wisdom.