Juvenile Justice

Remarks below as prepared for delivery at the Models for Change Tenth Annual Working Conference on December 15, 2015.

Thank you for the opportunity to bring this conference – indeed, an era – to a close. Yesterday I said I would be back today to thank you and that is now my task. MacArthur’s history of engagement in juvenile justice reform began nearly 20 years ago with the sense that youth were again being treated as adults, a century after juvenile court was created. This carried high individual and societal costs that, at the time, received little public scrutiny. We believed that the juvenile justice system had strayed from fairness, equality, and human dignity—ideals at the center of the concept of justice – and that all of this has served to undermine respect for the law and its institutions—police, courts, corrections—and eroded public safety.

From 20 years ago to today, we have seen much positive change. A Models for Change status report shows that  a developmental perspective is the conventional wisdom, if not yet fully practiced everywhere. Supreme Court decisions have affirmed that perspective by eliminating the juvenile death penalty and mandatory life without parole for juveniles. State after state has adopted legislation embodying the simple principle that children are different from adults and the justice systems that deal with them must be shaped by those differences. While there is much more to do, and many advances to be protected, we see best practices adopted in status offense rules, age limits for juvenile court jurisdiction, transfer to adult court, access to counsel, competency to stand trial, shackling, solitary confinement, juvenile records, and sex offender registration.

MacArthur is honored to have supported your efforts, the efforts that have brought us all to this point, where—judging by the accomplishments in the field over 20 years—how this country, this society, treats young people in contact with the law is clearly on a positive course.

Systems change philanthropy is a gamble and involves taking risks. It also requires the long view, with sustained attention, leadership, and the commitment of substantial resources. For us, it is a reflection of:

  • Our commitment to social change,
  • To working both inside and outside the system,
  • To bedrock values of justice, fairness, redemption, and opportunity,
  • To patience and persistence,
  • To the power of linking research, policy, and practice,
  • To investments in people that encourage them to be bold, ambitious, and to take risks,
  • And to the unflagging optimism that philanthropy must have that change is possible.

Here we are 20 years later; the investment—indeed the bet—in juvenile justice reform, embodied for the last decade in Models for Change, has paid off despite the threats we have grappled with, which remind us that the work is not done and vigilance is required to protect what we have accomplished together. The optimism that all of us in the room have tells us that the transformational change we are all working for is possible. 

As MacArthur prepares to build on the lessons and progress of the work in juvenile justice with a big bet in criminal justice reform, our focus and investment is in the Resource Center Partnership, anchored by four Resource Centers which are the centerpiece of what we call the legacy phase of the work.   

Our recent focus has been on supporting sustainable technical assistance through these Centers.

Our remaining work is to catalyze federal policy leadership, increased levels of federal support, and integration of these Centers into federal work. Significant steps in these areas are helping to ensure that the specific knowledge and expertise from Models for Change participating states and localities are leveraged for the benefit of the broader field and young people across the country.

The legacy phase is supporting a final year of the multi-funder National Campaign to Reform State Juvenile Justice Systems, with its work to date in 37 states, helping local advocates achieve 127 victories, ranging from the defeat of punitive proposals to the passage of omnibus juvenile justice reform bills.

All of this—over ten and indeed over 20 years—is a powerful base of progress and set of lessons we all have learned, as MacArthur makes a bet that the criminal justice system in this country can be more just, fair, and effective.  In fact, it must be more just, fair, and effective if America is to be true at all to fundamental humane and democratic ideals.  

I recently was drawn to the title of a new book; the title is Can’t Not Do. Think about that simple, ungrammatical phrase—can’t not do. Today, in America, urgent, transformational reform of our criminal justice system is something that we all can’t not do.    

We have selected as our focus in the field of reform the more than 3,000 jails in this country. Others are focusing on the critical issues of sentencing reform, conditions of confinement, cost savings, and more. 

We, and just a few others, are focusing on justice at the local level, in the community, where most Americans experience our country’s system of justice. What we call the Safety and Justice Challenge is tackling jails—what puts people (and here, we are talking about mostly black and brown people) in jail, what keeps them there, and what makes it likely that they will be back.

The stakes are high.  If the system is not fair, the experience challenges the legitimacy of government itself. This country risks erosion of the underpinnings of representative democracy itself—the willingness to be governed and to civically engage.

What you all have accomplished together, and the progress you will continue to make, is what makes us optimistic that change is possible in the criminal justice system. And positive change in that system will reinforce and help protect the advances you have made for young people.

A younger generation, exemplified by inspiring professionals like our new Champion for Change Jason Szanyi and youth advocates across the country, is beginning to replace the pioneers of the field (after all it has been 20 years). As this new generation asserts its leadership, other initiatives of your own making and theirs will replace the role Models for Change played in bringing you all together as one powerful force. 

The task ahead is to ensure that these initiatives are grounded in the developmental perspective, coupled with the use of scientific evidence. If that occurs, there will be a strong and just foundation for the future of America’s juvenile justice system.

Thank you again for your deep and abiding commitment to the young people of this nation. We know that you will continue to persevere, accomplish great things, and ensure the legacy of this work together by the victories you will continue to secure. 
Most importantly we know that you will affect the lives of thousands of youth in contact with the law. You will continue to improve their life chances—for their own benefit and the benefit of this country.

Every one of us at the MacArthur Foundation is proud to have been your partner and the people you have come to know over the years: MacArthur’s own leader in this work, Laurie Garduque, Patrick Griffin, Soledad McGrath, Stephen Stinson, Meredith Klein and others, are all honored to have supported your many extraordinary accomplishments.

Thank you.

Juvenile Justice, Justice, Youth