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. But in the 1990s, the boundaries between the juvenile and criminal justice systems began to erode. All but three states passed laws designed to treat youthful offenders as criminals instead of delinquents, ignoring their immaturity and holding them accountable as adults. The results have high individual and social costs that receive little public scrutiny — more youths tried in adult criminal court, turning away from rehabilitation, harsher and more punitive sanctions, reducing the confidentiality of proceedings, and greater incarceration of adults and young people in the same facilities.
Against this background, the MacArthur Foundation entered the field of juvenile justice in 1996. Since then, the Foundation has invested nearly $40 million in three areas: advancing the scientific knowledge base about adolescent development and criminal behavior; improving laws, policies, and practices; and supporting the development of model juvenile justice systems. Over the next five years, we will double our commitment to this work with $60 million more — a total investment of over $100 million in the field of juvenile justice.
Youth on trial
The rising rate of violent juvenile crime in the 1990s called for a reexamination of the juvenile justice system — the policies and practices of courts and correctional facilities. But treating young offenders as adults has proved counterproductive and raised questions about the fundamental fairness of a criminal justice system that fails to acknowledge their immaturity. Studies conducted by the MacArthur Research Network on Juvenile Justice and Adolescent Development have confirmed that there are significant differences in the cognitive development of adolescents and adults that affect the ability to make judgments. Other findings point to the high individual and societal costs of treating juveniles as adults, including increased recidivism, reduced educational and employment prospects, and troubling racial disparities in arrest and incarceration rates.
There are encouraging signs that this research is helping lay the groundwork for significant change in the field. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court drew on these findings in Roper v. Simmons, which prohibited the death penalty for those 18 and younger. Several states have closed down youth prisons and shifted resources toward community-based programs and services. Some have passed laws to reduce the number of youth tried and sentenced as adults. And there is rising concern for the mental health needs of young people who commit crimes.
Models for Change initiative
This newsletter describes MacArthur’s Models for Change initiative, which builds upon ongoing efforts to improve policy and practice. It will help accelerate system-wide reforms that are fair, effective, and recognize the developmental differences between children and adults. The goal is to support programs in several states that can improve public safety and provide lessons across the nation.
Currently, Models for Change involves four states — Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Each state was selected on the basis of its commitment to key principles that experts have identified for model juvenile justice systems: individual responsibility and fundamental fairness; recognition of juvenile and individual differences; and recognition of young peoples’ potential. Based on these principles, the initiative’s framework lays out goals, characteristics, practices, and outcomes against which actual systems can compare themselves. In areas where they fall short or depart from the ideal, it is hoped the framework will both stimulate and give practical direction to reform efforts.
Tracking five key outcomes
Progress in each state will be documented in order to provide a blueprint for change in other states. Ultimately, the success of a juvenile justice system will be reflected through improvements in the individual lives of youth in contact with the system. To understand how effective each system is, we will help the states track five key outcomes.
Fairness — as reflected in impartial and unbiased decision making, measured by reduced racial disparities and access to qualified counsel;
Recognition of Juvenile-Adult Differences — as demonstrated by the appropriate retention of youth in the juvenile justice system, measured by reduced transfer to adult criminal court;
Successful Engagement — as reflected by young people leaving the system more capable and productive than when they enter it, measured by increased participation in education, rehabilitation, and treatment services;
Community Safety — as demonstrated by youth who do not re-offend, measured by rates of recidivism;
Diversion — as reflected by an increased proportion of juvenile offenders handled as informally and as close to home as possible, measured by reduced reliance on incarceration as well as increased use of community-based alternative sanctions.
Ensuring that work in one state has an impact beyond its borders calls for two kinds of action: efforts to document, assess, and understand the process of change, and efforts to spread the news about it. Information about Models for Change — the knowledge it generates, the innovations it fosters, the results it achieves, the lessons it teaches, and the possibilities it opens — will be made available to a national audience. Outreach will include publications, national conferences, workshops, organized site visits, tool kits, and the launching of a special website devoted to the initiative.
To capture and enrich the lessons of each state, we will organize inter-state learning networks with participants from three additional states. One network will focus on an important concern that stands out across all the states we have chosen to work with: significant racial disparities in arrest and imprisonment. Studies reveal that African American and Latino youth receive harsher treatment than whites for the same offenses and are more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, and transferred to adult court. Our goal in the seven participating states is to make real progress in reducing racial disparities wherever they exist in the juvenile justice system. We believe it is possible to help America live up to its ideals of fairness and non-discrimination by focusing on these disparities and taking practical steps to eliminate them.
Investing in individuals who are in trouble or in need ultimately benefits us all. Programs that promote recovery and help integrate individuals into the mainstream make long-term financial and social sense. In Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington, the MacArthur Foundation is investing in institutions, organizations, and individuals we believe can pave the way toward a juvenile justice system that embodies its original intent — to enhance public safety while holding young offenders accountable for their actions, providing for their rehabilitation, protecting them from harm, and improving their outlook for success as responsible and productive members of society. In these pages, you will learn about some of these individuals and organizations on the front lines helping turn those high aspirations into reality.
Jonathan F. Fanton
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