"Capturing Momentum for Change in the Juvenile Justice System," Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at the Models for Change National Working Conference
December 4, 2006 | Speech | Juvenile Justice

I am pleased to welcome all of you to the MacArthur Foundation’s first national working conference on Models for Change.  You are here today because you are committed to building a fair justice system in America, because you have already accomplished a lot in your home states, and because you believe there is more to be done.  Our mission is to spark a national movement for juvenile justice reform. 

The momentum is building thanks to the creative improvements you are implementing in your states.  The challenge now is to create a roadmap for the Models for Change that you are pioneering, and to fashion a coherent plan that other states can follow.  Please note the important letter “S” in Models.  We are talking about different models that work, not a single inflexible approach.  We are creating a menu of options, based on shared principles, but sensitive to local conditions.
Together, we are leading the way to a juvenile justice system that holds young offenders accountable for their actions, provides for their rehabilitation, protects them from harm, increases their life chances, and manages the risks they pose to themselves and to public safety.
This is a working conference, a time to share insights, learn from each other, and develop a deep partnership for change.  Gathered here are state legislators, cabinet secretaries, state Supreme Court justices, state and local district attorneys, public defenders, probation officers, front-line youth workers, youth advocates, research scholars, and experts in the field.
We represent different disciplines, different institutions, different perspectives, but we are united in our determination to create a fair and effective juvenile justice system.
We have an opening unimaginable a few years ago.  The temper of those times ran to harsh punishment and adult treatment for adolescents. There was very little evidence to support claims on either side of the debate over how best to deal with youthful offenders. Moral arguments – arguments about our responsibility to improve the lives of young people – ran headlong into political arguments, demonizing adolescents and demanding stiff sentences.

The boundaries between the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems eroded quickly. "Adult time for adult crime," said the critics.  They called the juvenile system soft, ineffective, antiquated, dangerous to communities.  By the end of the 1990's, all but three states had passed laws sending youthful offenders into adult criminal systems.

Across the nation, lawmakers curtailed the jurisdiction of juvenile courts and the discretion of judges.  New detention centers were built. More youths were tried in adult courts and more were jailed with adult offenders. Funding for rehabilitation dwindled. Many educational, mental health, and drug abuse treatment programs disappeared altogether.   

But in recent years, the tide has begun to turn, the fallacies that drove the wave of punitive policies are being challenged. New research is showing the toll those policies are taking on kids, families, communities. 

Policymakers, from across the political spectrum, are reconsidering harsh measures.  Falling crime rates have eased the pressure and state budget crises have made the heavy cost of incarceration hard to justify, given the evidence that it leads to more, not less, crime.  Legislators, state administrators, local officials, and practitioners are beginning to move away from punitive sanctions. They are seeing the virtues of a more balanced approach – an approach that protects public safety and holds young people accountable for their actions, but in ways that do not compromise their future life’s chances.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons, outlawing the juvenile death penalty, was a watershed moment. The highest court in the land took seriously the body of research on adolescent development and applied it in an unequivocal way. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy frequently cited the research on developmental immaturity—the centerpiece of the work of the MacArthur Foundation’s Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. 

Hear his words:

“[Y]outh is more than a chronological fact. It is a time and condition of life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and to psychological damage.  From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”

It is always reassuring to see evidence inform policy.  The MacArthur Foundation is proud of the enormous contributions of our Research Network under the leadership of Professor Lawrence Steinberg.

The network produced solid evidence that most youths are not yet capable of the complex reasoning required for participation in legal proceedings because of cognitive, social and emotional immaturity.  Evidence also shows that they are more likely to defer to authority figures and bow to peer pressure than adults. Simply put, young people are less able to recognize the risks and consequences associated with the choices they make.

We also know, as a practical matter, that jailing young people with adults is counterproductive and costly. The Network has shown that get-tough remedies have little or no impact on juvenile crime.  In fact, harsh punishment and inadequate rehabilitation services are more likely to increase recidivism. 

Consider these facts, just samples:

  • Adolescents, who are processed in adult court for felonies, are nearly twice as likely to be rearrested for a violent offense within six years.
  • Of young people who are incarcerated, over 80 percent go on to commit crimes as adults.

At a cost of about $160,000 per inmate per year, locking up juvenile offenders is an expensive proposition. Few politicians would want to run on a platform that advocated more taxes for less public safety.

Today, we have solid evidence showing that rehabilitation works and is cost-effective.  Studies by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found proven treatment programs are a good investment.  For example, Functional Family Therapy reduced recidivism by 38 percent, saving the tax-payers $10 for every dollar spent.

There is a principle and a pattern here we should acknowledge.  The principle is that when we do the right thing for an individual in trouble or need we are helping the larger society as well – in this case leading to less crime, less money spent on prison, more productive lives contributing to the greater good, not draining it. The time is right and ripe to accelerate the application of this principle and the Network's findings. 

And we see tremendous enthusiasm for reform spreading across the country.  Several governors called me personally to make the case for investing in their state’s reform efforts.  We received letters of support from state Supreme Court justices, local judges and district attorneys, legislators, service providers, and juvenile advocates.   In our work with state and local partners, in counties and parishes, we see a wealth of experience and talent, ready to join forces in animating a new wave of reform in your states and across the country.

And that mission is what brings us together as founding partners in Models for Change.  Starting with Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Washington and Illinois, we aim to spread the word – the science, the policies, and the practical models – to other states ready to change.

Grounded in the belief that young people can be redeemed, all four of your states have embraced six key principles defining a model juvenile justice system: 

  • Fundamental fairness;
  • The recognition of developmental and individual differences;
  • The acknowledgment of potential – young offenders are capable of rehabilitation and positive change;
  • Safety for communities and individuals;
  • Personal accountability for one’s own actions; and
  • Community responsibility – our society has an obligation to safeguard the welfare of children. 

But let me emphasize one fundamental point.  While we are united in principle, we also have deep respect for each state's circumstances, legal framework, history, culture, and tradition. We do not seek to impose specific solutions; we seek to nurture different models based on common principles. 

Our home state of Illinois has shown great innovation at all levels and in all parts of the state.  As the site of the first juvenile court, it seems particularly fitting for the Foundation to help with its reform efforts.  Over the last several years, the environment for juvenile justice reform in Illinois has improved, demonstrated by the recent creation of the new Department of Juvenile Justice.

Pennsylvania has a longstanding commitment to progressive juvenile justice law and policy, experienced leadership, and deep organizational capacity.  Pennsylvania has invested in effective aftercare programs helping young people, released from residential facilities, re-adjust to their communities and maintain the gains made in treatment.

Washington State has been a leader in basing policy and practice on sound evidence.  It has conducted rigorous evaluations of policies and programs searching for those that help young people through the most cost effective means, programs like Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care.

Louisiana created its own separate juvenile system in 2005 and reduced the number of young people in secure confinement by 75 percent.  There is now the alignment, energy, and political will to push reform, from a focus on conditions in secure institutions, to the development of a model system, with a continuum of services and sanctions.

The challenge for Models for Change is to demonstrate that despite different starting points, diverse interventions, and distinct pathways, all states can succeed in moving toward a model system.
But our first goal is to improve juvenile justice in your states.  How will we know that progress is being made?  Our initiative will track these critical indicators:

  • reducing transfer and waiver to adult court;
  • increasing participation in education, job training, rehabilitation and treatment programs;
  • increasing the use of alternatives to incarceration;
  • reducing recidivism; and
  • reducing racial disparities.

As firm evidence of progress against those indicators mounts, it will be easier to convince other states to adopt the reforms that produce positive change.  So, within five years we would hope to see least half the states in the country with the data they need to design interventions that reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the system.  We also want to see more states roll back automatic transfer to the adult court, allocate money to services rather than to confinement, and fund better legal representation.

Let me close with a comment on reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system.

The MacArthur Juvenile Justice Network provides overwhelming evidence of what we know instinctively to be true:  young people of color are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system.  A clear pattern:  same crime, different treatment, harsher outcomes for people of color.

Consider these data points:

  • Black youth are referred to juvenile court at twice the rate for white youth.
  • Of all juvenile arrests for violent crimes, 55 percent involved white youth, 42 percent involved black youth.  Following arrest, however, blacks are detained eight times more often than whites.
  • Overall, black youth are incarcerated at five times the rate of white youth.  For every 100,000 juveniles arrested, 1,018 blacks are serving time; for whites, only 204. 

Should we accept these statistics as a fair representation of American life? Do we believe that nothing can be done to diminish disparate treatment?

I am confident that everyone in this room joins me when I say, "No."

Inequalities of this kind are unacceptable in a democratic society. They are shameful reminders that we are falling far short of our highest aspirations. The MacArthur Foundation has made reducing racial disparities in the juvenile justice system a critical objective of Models for Change.  In addition to the four focus states, MacArthur will add up to 6 more for an action network of 10 states devoted to this issue and committed to change.

As I look out over the group, I feel a mix of humility, pride and inspiration.  Humbled that MacArthur has the privilege of working with partners so talented and so committed to core American values.  Proud that we have made good judgments in the people who will lead this country to a juvenile justice system worthy of those core values.  And inspired because I know working together we are going to make a difference. 

We are embarking on a journey together that represents the best of the American can-do spirit, the American faith in individual and collective progress, the American commitment to civil discourse based on objective evidence.  Let this initiative also stand as a reaffirmation of our belief that science and moral values can work together for a more just and human world at peace.

Together we will prevail.

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