Juvenile Justice

Our Goal

Primarily through Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice, MacArthur supports reform in 40 states with a goal of accelerating a national movement to improve the lives of young people in contact with the law, while enhancing public safety and holding young offenders accountable for their actions. After 20 years, support for work in juvenile justice is coming to a close. Through 2017, the focus is on expanding the use of successful tools and approaches developed through Models for Change, including support for the network of resource centers that provide assistance to system leaders in the top areas of concern.


The premise of our work in juvenile justice is that an understanding of the scientific research on child and adolescent development and mental health will help decision makers develop more effective policies and practices and make more rational choices in individual cases. We support research, training, practical interventions, policy analysis, and public education that promotes a fair, rational, and effective juvenile justice system that recognizes the developmental differences between adolescents and adults; is linked to other relevant agencies and organizations; and is held accountable for public safety and the rehabilitation of young offenders. 


During the 1990s, 47 states passed laws that put more juveniles in adult criminal court, instituted harsher sanctions, and allowed adults and youths to be imprisoned in the same facilities. In 1996, the Foundation set a goal to reverse this course and to promote a rational, evidence-based juvenile justice system that holds young offenders accountable for their actions, promotes rehabilitation, enhances public safety, and lowers costs to taxpayers.  We posited that an improved understanding of adolescent psychological development and mental health would help decision makers make more rational, informed choices in policy and practice that would lead to greater public safety and better outcomes for youth.    

From 1996 to 2002, we supported research, training, policy analysis, public education, and practical interventions across 14 states.  The Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice provided the cornerstone of our juvenile justice strategy: its findings over ten years made it clear that adolescents are fundamentally different from adults, and that treating juvenile offenders as adults, relying on incarceration, and failing to commit resources to rehabilitation and treatment is expensive, produces negative consequences, jeopardizes public safety, and compromises future life chances. After five years, an expert panel reported the work’s important contributions to policy and practice, and challenged us to use these findings to help states become models of juvenile justice reform.

In 2003, we launched Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice, a $100 million effort to develop successful models of system-wide reform that other states could learn from and emulate, and to create a wave of juvenile justice reform built on new scientific evidence and knowledge of best practices, and built on state and local reform efforts that were practical and feasible. The initiative does not advance a single “model” system. Rather, it seeks to demonstrate different ways to improve systems performance and outcomes in four core states—Pennsylvania, Illinois, Louisiana, and Washington.  Targeted issues include racial and ethnic disparities; re-entry after incarceration; mental health; diversion; evidence-based practices; and the boundary between the juvenile and adult criminal systems.  Local demonstration sites model best practices in these targeted areas and, once success has been demonstrated, promote the activities as models for other jurisdictions to adopt.  

Our Strategic Approach

The Foundation has taken a distinctive approach to juvenile justice reform - one that is grounded in the growing body of behavioral and neuroscience research on youth development. We believe that decision makers will be able to develop more effective policies and practices and make more informed choices in individual cases if they have a thorough understanding of child and adolescent development. 

The Foundation is implementing its strategy at four levels: developing a knowledge base and tools to inform decisions in policy and practice; developing and promoting model demonstrations of system-wide reform in targeted sites; translating knowledge into action through advocacy and dissemination; and accelerating the pace of state policy reform nationally. 

Grantmaking Priorities

Models of Systems Reform

Through the initiative Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice, the Foundation supports efforts in key states to bring about changes in law, policy, and practice, and heighten interest in and provide models for juvenile justice reform nationwide. Initiative goals include greater use of evidence-based practices, improving aftercare and mental health services, and increasing community-based alternatives to incarceration. All sites are working to improve data collection and analysis for decision making and to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities. 

Models for Change is active in 16 states: four core states (Pennsylvania, Illinois, Louisiana, and Washington; and 12 others (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin) through "action networks” focused on racial and ethnic disparities, mental health services, and the quality of juvenile indigent defense.

National Campaign to Reform State Juvenile Justice Systems 

In 2011, the Foundation began a multi-funder collaborative effort to share the lessons of Models for Change and other reform initiatives to help generate and build a wave of juvenile justice policy reform across the country. National campaign operations and activities include a central office that identifies target states for policy reform, and oversees state-based campaigns; investments in as many as 16 states to reform juvenile justice law and policy; and national communications and outreach advance a national dialogue in support of widespread juvenile justice reform across the country. 


The Foundation supports research to inform the development of effective juvenile justice policies and practices, such as the Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, whose research addressed the competence of young people to stand trial, youthful immaturity and criminal responsibility, and desistance from criminal behavior. More recent research that examines the process and effectiveness of systems reform in the Models for Change states, including studies of the consequences of mental health screening in pretrial detention, risk/needs assessment, financing systems change, benefit-cost analysis of juvenile justice programs and services, and interactions between schools and juvenile justice. 


Evidence is growing that the reforms being implemented in Models for Change states are increasing public safety, lowering costs, and helping youth.  States and jurisdictions across the country are engaged in innovative work that is transforming their practices and policies, while creating a “playbook” for other jurisdictions that want to accomplish similar successes.

The success of the initiative is being judged on four levels: 

  • local demonstration sites showing progress toward goals in the targeted areas of improvement
  • progress in the targeted areas moving a state toward having a model system
  • reductions in racial and ethnic disparities
  • progress motivating other state and national policymakers to make justice reform a priority  


Updated September 2017

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