MacArthur Awards for Creative & Effective Institutions

Juvenile Law Center

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | 2008 Award Recipient

Building a Fairer and More Effective Juvenile Justice System

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the juvenile death penalty in Roper v. Simmons. The decision affirmed principles that Juvenile Law Center (JLC) had upheld for three decades and marked a watershed moment in children’s rights.

Since the 1990’s, the tendency in America’s juvenile justice system had been to impose increasingly severe sanctions. Most states passed laws to treat juvenile offenders as adult criminals rather than delinquents, and cut back on rehabilitation and treatment. But a movement for reform was also gathering strength, calling for a system that would recognize the real developmental differences between juveniles and adults – and be fairer, more rational, and more effective. Roper v. Simmons showed that the tide was turning.

Established in 1975, JLC has been at the forefront of this movement for change. Its goals are to hold the child welfare and juvenile justice systems accountable for both for their performance and the outcomes they produce, to advocate for fair treatment and access to high-quality services, and to include young people in the legal decisions that affect them. One of America’s oldest and most respected public interest law firms devoted to children, JLC’s expertise is now sought by child advocacy groups nationwide.

In its early years, JLC concentrated on individual cases. As its expertise and reputation have grown, the Center has focused increasingly on broader issues of child welfare and juvenile justice reform: high-profile class action suits and appellate work, participation in state and national boards and commissions, model legislation and standards, influential publications and scholarly law review articles.

JLC’s influence is particularly evident in its home state. Pennsylvania’s laws and policies favor rehabilitation over jail sentences. Professionals in the state who deal with young people in trouble with the law are trained to recognize their special needs. The Center recently won lawsuits that enabled minors in the justice system to return to regular public schools, to live with their relatives while in foster care, and to receive appropriate mental health care while in detention.

Throughout its history, JLC has attracted students and young lawyers as interns and fellows; many of them are now leaders who work for positive reform in universities, activist organizations, or the legal profession.

JLC is a model for other legal child advocacy groups across the nation. Its efforts have helped change the conversation about juvenile justice, using evidence, reasoned discourse, and targeted legal advocacy to show that the harsh treatment of young people is both unjust and ineffectual in promoting successful outcomes.

Juvenile Law Center will use its $500,000 grant to upgrade its technology, implement a more effective communications strategy, strengthen its national policy work, and build its operating reserve.


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