Momentum for Juvenile Justice Reform
December 14, 2018 | 40 Years, 40 Stories

As you look back 20 years, why was the need for juvenile justice reform so critical?
ML: Twenty years ago, the United States was in the grip of the “superpredator” myth that caused our juvenile justice system to take a hard-right turn toward punishment and retribution and away from treatment and rehabilitation of young offenders. The shift in emphasis was dramatic, with over 200,000 children tried as adults every year and then subject to all of the criminal sanctions the justice system meted out to adults — including, in some states, the death penalty and life without parole sentences. By the end of the 1990s, the myth began unraveling: crime was steadily declining and the purported research behind the superpredator threat was expressly disavowed. We began to recognize the policy mistakes of the ‘90s and understood that we risked losing an entire generation of youth — especially youth of color — to the hopelessness of long or interminable prison sentences unless we re-examined these flawed choices.

In what ways can the juvenile justice system be ineffective or unfair to youth and to communities?
ML: The juvenile justice system has never been particularly effective at engaging the children, families, or communities that it impacts. Historically, the system operated behind closed doors, offering youth confidentiality but sacrificing transparency and accountability. Children were not accorded a right to counsel until nearly 70 years after the first juvenile court opened its doors, yet this constitutional right can still be elusive in courtrooms around the country. And while recent reforms have shrunk the carceral footprint of the juvenile justice system by approximately 50 percent, nearly 50,000 children are still incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities every day, despite mounting research that confinement, especially secure confinement, produces only minimal returns toward reducing re-offending.

What is disproportionate minority contact and why does it exist?  How can the system achieve or move toward racial equity?
ML: Disproportionate minority contact refers to the disparity between the ratio of youth of color in the general population versus their involvement with the juvenile justice system. At every step of the system, from street contact, arrest, prosecution, adjudication, and disposition, as well as transfer to the adult system, youth of color are disproportionately pulled into the system, retained longer, subject to harsher penalties, and more likely to be tried as adults. These disparities are the product of structural and systemic racism that has its origins in slavery and white supremacy — practices and ideology that have led to our justice system being populated overwhelmingly with youth and adults of color. While awareness of structural racism is growing, the disparities persist. All parties to the system — police, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, and defense counsel — must participate in seeking and implementing solutions. Youth and communities of color must also be engaged if we are to truly move beyond the racism of the current system.


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What role has scientific research played in reform?
ML: Scientific research has been pivotal to current reform efforts, and the MacArthur Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice was central in producing and disseminating that research in the early 2000s. As Network members began connecting the dots between adolescent characteristics and attributes, adolescent criminal behavior, criminal culpability, and criminal justice policy, the advocacy community cited this research to build a distinctive constitutional jurisprudence that interprets constitutional safeguards and protections differently for children than adults. This analysis of youth’s status under law was brought to state legislators to support policy reform efforts. Prior to this connection between research and policy, children were often denied certain constitutional protections or afforded watered-down versions of them. Today, constitutional protections for children are increasingly assessed with their needs and interests at the forefront, rather than a focus on their limited access to rights, benefits, or privileges until adulthood.  

What concrete changes have you seen in the juvenile justice system? What is the outlook for continued progress in systems reform?
ML: The research on adolescent development, competency, and culpability has led to a series of United States Supreme Court decisions that profoundly altered the legal landscape for children, particularly in the criminal justice system. Beginning with the Court’s 2005 decision in Roper v Simmons, the Court banned the juvenile death penalty and most life without parole sentences for children and established the recognition of the “reasonable child” standard in criminal law, which has already transformed law enforcement interrogation practices with youth and will likely lead to further reforms.

We have also seen significant policy and practice reforms emerge from both the legislative and executive branches at the state level. MacArthur’s Models for Change initiative supported state-based advocates and other stakeholders in leading the way on many of these reforms. Overall, the footprint of the juvenile justice system has shrunk substantially. More youth are being diverted from formal processing in the system, fewer are being held in secure detention pre-trial, and substantially fewer youth are being prosecuted in the criminal justice system. All but four states set the age of criminal responsibility at 18, and some have raised the eligible age for transfer to the adult system — in some cases to age 16. The Models for Change legacy work was instrumental in promoting some of these key legislative reforms of the last decade. State Supreme Courts have also spearheaded reform, some following the U.S. Supreme Court’s lead in prohibiting or limiting the application of adult mandatory sentencing schemes to children and providing expanded youth rights during the interrogation process. Probation services are also being re-examined, as some jurisdictions are adopting more of a case management approach to supervision and graduated responses to youth under supervision. All of these reforms have occurred in an extended period of low crime rates, which allows stakeholders room to be more innovative and less punitive in responding to juvenile offending.  

Looking ahead, we can expect continued momentum toward lessening the harsh policies and practices adopted in the 1990s, with continuing development and implementation of innovations that Models for Change helped kick-start. These include a continued focus on reducing confinement and keeping youth in their communities; greater attention paid to the voices of youth and their families in considering system reforms; and ongoing scrutiny of transfer laws to reduce the prosecution of youth as adults. However, social and political winds are inherently unpredictable, and extreme criminal events by children or adults have historically upended reform efforts in the past. Shoring up the reforms outlined above will require not only official support at the governmental level but also the commitment and participation of all stakeholders and parties to the system.


From 2004 to 2016, MacArthur awarded $172 million in grants for the Models for Change initiative, and the resulting National Campaign and legacy phase, which aimed at promoting fairer, more effective, and more developmentally appropriate juvenile justice systems throughout the United States, as a part of the Juvenile Justice program.

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