"Towards a Juvenile Justice System that is Effective and Fair," Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at the National Conference on Juvenile Justice and Adolescent Development
September 22, 2006 | Speech | Juvenile Justice

This conference represents a significant milestone in MacArthur’s 15-year, $100 million dollar investment in the field of juvenile justice.  Today we celebrate the accomplishments of the MacArthur Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice.  But this gathering also passes the torch from the first phase, which created a solid evidence base, to a new MacArthur initiative designed to put this knowledge to work for better policy and practice.

We call this second phase Models for Change.  We seek a juvenile justice system that is rational, fair, effective, and linked to service organizations and other state agencies.  That model system 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.

It is a core value of the MacArthur Foundation that public policy should be based on high quality, objective research.  The Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice is the cornerstone of the Foundation’s juvenile justice strategy. A decade ago, we charged the Network with surveying research on the juvenile justice system, asking in particular how well the system took account of adolescent development.  Once gaps in scientific knowledge were identified – for example, adolescents’ competence to stand trial, the effect of developmental immaturity on their culpability, and their potential for change – we supported the Network to undertake the research you have been hearing about at this conference.  Larry Steinberg and his colleague have deepened our understanding of the relationship between adolescent development and criminal behavior.  Larry, MacArthur is proud to have supported this work and grateful for your leadership.

Now the challenge is to use the Network’s persuasive findings in system-wide change.

And so it is extraordinarily gratifying to see the excellent turnout for this conference -- policymakers and practitioners, advocates and experts, civic and community leaders from 48 states and the District of Columbia. Collectively, we have the ability to transform the practice of juvenile justice by broadly applying the core insights of the Research Network. 

Let us commit ourselves today to assembling coalitions in our communities, in our states, and in our nation to put the best science into practice. Together, we can create a fair and effective juvenile justice system that enhances public safety, gives a good return on public investments, and reflects our society’s deep belief in redemptive possibilities for people who have made mistakes.

The MacArthur Research Network has been at the forefront of a shift in how our country thinks about juvenile justice. During the 1980s and early 1990s, juvenile crime escalated and the juvenile justice system came under attack.  "Adult time for adult crime," said the critics, calling the system soft, ineffective, and out of step with contemporary conditions. Nationwide, 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 rehabilitative programs dwindled. Many educational, mental health, and drug abuse treatment programs disappeared entirely. 

Today, legislators, officials, and practitioners are beginning to move away from harsh and punitive sanctions toward a more balanced approach that protects public safety and holds young people accountable for their actions in ways that do not compromise their future life chances.  States as diverse as Louisiana, Connecticut, and Montana, are reducing their reliance on incarceration, increasing resources for treatment and services, and changing law and policy to account for youthful immaturity.

These promising approaches are not based on ideology or wishful thinking, but on solid evidence – evidence you understand well.

Why is this shift occurring now? What do we know today that we did not know 10 years ago?

To start, we now know that because of cognitive, social, and emotional immaturity, most youths are not yet capable of the complex reasoning required for legal competence.  Evidence also shows that youth are more likely to defer to authority figures and bow to peer pressure. 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.  Adolescents processed in adult court for felonies are nearly twice as likely to be rearrested for a violent offense within six years and they are 25 percent more likely to be incarcerated. At a cost of about $160,000 per inmate per year, locking up juvenile offenders is an expensive proposition. And of those young people who are incarcerated, over 80 percent go on to commit crimes as adults.

Today, we have solid evidence showing that rehabilitation works and is cost-effective.  Studies by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that using clinically tested treatment programs such as Functional Family Therapy reduced recidivism by 38 percent. For every tax-payer dollar spent, $10 was saved.

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.  I submit that this pattern can be traced across other policy domains – preschool education, health, and housing among them.  But that is a topic for another talk.

The time is right and ripe to accelerate the application of this principle and the Network's findings.  The Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate the juvenile death penalty shows the power of scientific evidence.  Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy frequently cited the Network’s research on youthful immaturity.  States like Arkansas, Louisiana, Virginia, and Maryland are using the Network’s findings to set standards for assessing competency and establishing due-process.  In Illinois, the data helped convince the General Assembly to roll back automatic transfer for drug offenses. 

These developments are all promising, but much is left to be done. The challenge is to translate new knowledge and local progress into widespread systemic change across America.  In Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Washington, and Illinois, Models for Change will help accelerate system-wide reforms that are fair, effective, and recognize the developmental differences between children and adults. The goal is comprehensive system reform that produces measurable results in improved public safety, better outcomes for young people, and a lighter burden on tax payers.  And the idea is to spread the word – the science, the policies, and the practical models – to other states ready to change.

Grounded in the knowledge that young people can be redeemed, all four 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.

We chose to work with Pennsylvania, Illinois, Louisiana, and Washington because of their political and fiscal commitment to reform, their support for change in and outside the juvenile justice system, and the likelihood that other states would follow their lead. Let me emphasize that we have deep respect for each state's circumstances, legal culture, and tradition. We do not seek to impose specific solutions; we seek to nurture different models based on common principles. 

The initiative’s challenge is to demonstrate that despite different starting points, diverse interventions, and distinct pathways, all states can succeed in moving toward a model system.
We have been gratified by the energy Models for Change has generated in each state.  Several governors called me personally to make the case for investing in their state’s reform efforts, and we received letters of support from state Supreme Court justices, local judges and district attorneys, legislators, service providers, and juvenile advocates.

In each state, we are working with a local partner to coordinate activities.  These organizations – the Juvenile Law Center in Pennsylvania, the Louisiana Board of Regents, the Civitas Child Law Center at Loyola University Chicago, and the Center for Children and Youth Justice in Washington – craft blueprints for reform and recruit additional partners at the county level. By involving national organizations like the Child Welfare League of America, the National Juvenile Defender Center, and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, we hope lessons from these four states will fire enthusiasm in other states to follow their lead.

How will we know that progress is being made?  Our initiative will track critical indicators such as:

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

Let us take a close look at that last goal.  The MacArthur 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 six more for a network of ten states devoted to this issue and committed to change.

We do not start from the premise that racism and discrimination are the only sources of the disparity.  Nor do we believe that people of color are more prone to crime.  We think there are structural and practical reasons that explain some – maybe a lot – of the differences.

For example by responding to personal and social factors correlated with race – such as family resources, neighborhoods, parental supervision, or school performance – court officials may unintentionally reinforce racial disparities. 

Differences in treatment can arise when there are not objective tools to identify youths who might pose a risk to public safety, or because there are no alternatives to detention.  Automatic transfer to adult criminal court can also magnify racial imbalances. 

Whether these reasons reflect good intentions gone awry or more subtle forms of discrimination, the stark reality of such racial disparities requires corrective action.

We all know that progress on these issues will not come easy. Experience has shown that the work is difficult and takes time. No single strategy can provide the solution. A variety of specific, concrete interventions must be tailored to remedy the particular flaws distinctive to each state system. It is critical to ask – and not to assume – exactly where, when, how, and why disparities arise.  We need to collect data at each decision point, from street stops to confinement and beyond; examine the disparities along this spectrum; and then develop a process that ensures justice, fairness, and accountability at each step.

After decades of silence about the issue of racial disparities, we are encouraged by the willingness of many public officials to confront the problem.  If Models for Change is successful in the states where it is active, within a few years we will see regular reporting on the role of race and ethnicity in decisions from arrest to confinement. We will see remedies to address disparities that are revealed – remedies that may include greater courtroom assistance, better screening procedures, improved mental health services, and more community-based alternatives to incarceration. And, we will see juvenile justice systems being held accountable for their performance.

There have been periods in our history when sharp progress was made on the issue of race, as when legal barriers to access and inclusion fell during the middle of the 20th century.  I have the feeling that we have stalled in recent years and that it is time for another sharp push toward realizing the vision of tolerance and equality embedded in our charter documents.

Forty-two years ago, President Johnson challenged our country to realize these ideals when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I have modernized his gender references:

“We believe that all men [people] are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment.
We believe that all men [people] have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.
We believe that all men [people] are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings--not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.
The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man [humankind]. …
But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”
As a nation, we have come very far in four decades, very far – but not far enough.  The search for racial equity and tolerance of difference is a core value of the MacArthur Foundation.  We hope that our Juvenile Justice initiative might just provide a spark that reignites America’s passion for another era of active pursuit of racial justice.

We have embarked 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.

We are proud to be your partners in the quest for a juvenile justice system that is fair, effective, and compassionate.

Together we can make a difference.

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