The United States’ juvenile justice system was founded a century ago with the enlightened goal of providing individualized treatment and services to children in trouble. In the 1990s, however, the boundaries between the juvenile and criminal justice systems began to erode. Virtually every state passed laws that placed more young people in criminal court, instituted harsher sanctions, and allowed adults and youth to be incarcerated in the same facilities. That is the background against which the MacArthur Foundation entered the field of juvenile justice grantmaking.
The rising rate of violent juvenile crime in the 1990s clearly called for new responses. But was it appropriate to treat young offenders as adults? Emerging evidence in the neurosciences seemed to confirm that children, well into their teens, are, in fact, different from adults. Other research pointed to the high individual and societal costs of the new legal measures, including increased recidivism, reduced educational and employment prospects, and troubling racial disparities. The Foundation entered the field with the ultimate goal of promoting a juvenile justice system that is rational, fair, and effective, and that is linked to other agencies and organizations. The system would hold young offenders accountable for their actions, provide for their rehabilitation, protect them from harm, increase their life chances, and manage the risk they pose to themselves and to public safety.
The first phase of grantmaking, which began in 1996, grew out of the Foundation’s long-standing interest in youth development. Grants were directed at two efforts: advancing the scientific knowledge base; and fostering the development of appropriate laws, policies, and practices. The Foundation sought to give decision makers the tools that would allow them to make rational choices for individual juvenile offenders — to assesstheir culpability, the possibilities for rehabilitation, and the risk of future, more serious offenses. Grants supported the establishment of the long-term, interdisciplinary Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, as well as training, advocacy, policy analysis, and public education efforts.
These grants laid the groundwork for significant change in the field. But after five years, it was time to take the effort to another level. As our nation’s juvenile justice system entered its second century, the Foundation launched an initiative to help states become models of juvenile justice reform.
For more information visit the Models for Change website.
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