“Models for Change” System Aims at Needed Juvenile Justice Reforms

Behind Bars, Fitzroy, Melbourne

Behind Bars, Fitzroy, Melbourne (Photo credit: Scott (Double Beard) Savage)

The John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, which has already funded $150 million in juvenile justice reform research and programs over nearly two decades, just pledged another $15 million to establish a Models for Change Resource Center Partnership.

“Right now there are no go-to places to get the kind of information, resources, toolkits, and access to colleagues who have ‘been there and done that,’ for would-be juvenile justice reform advocates,” said Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform for the MacArthur Foundation. The new Partnership aims to be that place people call when they want to make the kind of policy changes that result in better outcomes for kids and communities, including rehabilitation, treatment in home communities and competent legal defense.

The announcement came at the 2013 summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), an annual gathering of 5,000 state lawmakers, staff, advocates, lobbyists and others. NCSL will be one of several allies that MacArthur will tap to help coordinate and push juvenile justice reforms. The Partnership is expected to be fully operational within 2013.

Garduque says:

The other half of what the Partnership aims to do is to make sure people like legislators, sheriffs and court administrators see MacArthur-researched juvenile justice practices when they get together and discuss their own best practices.

The Partnership will set up four go-to centers in different policy areas: mental health training and care, legal defense, status offense reform and a more general juvenile justice center focused on court-involved youth.

Currently, Models for Change supports a network of government and court officials, legal advocates, educators, community leaders and families who work together in six key areas to ensure that kids who make mistakes are held accountable and are treated fairly throughout the juvenile justice process. It provides research-based tools and techniques to make juvenile justice more fair, effective, rational and developmentally-appropriate.
Models for Change has supported many counties and states in reforming the way they treat kids who have committed crimes. Local officials say that Models for Change has helped them improve public safety and support juveniles, even as they grapple with tight budgets and tough fiscal decisions. The progress that has been seen in Models for Change communities shows that when committed people come together real reform can create lasting change.

The Models for Change juvenile justice system reform initiative is now working comprehensively in four states (Washington. Illinois, Louisiana and Pennsylvania) and is concentrating on the issues of mental health services, juvenile indigent defense and racial and ethnic disparities in an additional 12. The dozen partner states are Maryland, Wisconsin, Kansas, North Carolina, California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Colorado, Ohio and Texas. The MacArthur Foundation has committed to spending up to $10 million over five years to support juvenile justice reforms in each of the four core states.

The six key areas Models for Change focuses on are Aftercare, Community-based Alternatives to Incarceration, Evidence-Proven Practices, Juvenile Indigent Defense, Mental Health and Racial/ethnic Fairness.

Aftercare involves post-release services, supervision and support that helps formerly incarcerated youth transition safely and successfully back into the community. Without quality aftercare, the estimated 100,000 youngsters leaving juvenile institutions each year face failure, recidivism and more incarceration. Sadly, quality aftercare is in short supply nationally.

Pennsylvania has selected aftercare as a targeted area of improvement and is working to connect youth with the programs and services they need to adjust and succeed after their residential treatment. The state is integrating treatment plans with aftercare plans to assist young people in overcoming problems, building on strengths and acquiring essential living skills. It is developing educational and employment programs to improve their life chances.

Most young people who violate the law do not need to be formally processed or held in custody. In fact, such measures often do serious damage by disrupting their bonds to their families and communities. Unfortunately, juvenile facilities are filled with low-level youth who could be safely and effectively managed in other settings. Confinement of low-level delinquents is costly for communities and doesn’t serve public safety.

Now more than ever, research is helping to establish approaches and programs that effectively change delinquent behavior, lower recidivism and help young people succeed. Rigorously studied evidence-based programs like Multisystemic Therapy and Family Functional Therapy have been found to produce consistently better results than traditional interventions. Research also supports other programs and services that show promise in improving behavior and emotional functioning. Sadly, many juvenile justice systems struggle to put these proven and scientifically supported approaches into practice.

Young people in trouble with the law have a right to legal counsel, but they often don’t get the timely or adequate representation they need. Many waive their constitutional right to counsel and accept plea offers without fully understanding their actions. Too often, even those who do have lawyers are inadequately represented, because of defenders’ high caseloads, inexperience and/or lack of training and resources. Statewide assessments of the juvenile indigent defense systems in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Louisiana, and Washington have already been conducted, and technical assistance and training have been offered.
Recent research shows that up to 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for at least one mental health disorder, such as major depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety conditions. Many of these youngsters land in the juvenile justice system because their conditions are unrecognized, community services aren’t available or systems aren’t coordinating effectively to put the right support in place. Unfortunately, young people with mental health problems often get worse when they are inappropriately treated or confined without support. Pennsylvania and Washington have chosen mental health as one of their targeted areas for improvement. The MacArthur-funded Partnership Resource Center in the mental health area will be the Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, based in Albany, NY.

Finally, youth of color are overrepresented at nearly every point of contact with the juvenile justice system—and this finding is disturbingly persistent over time. Youth of color are more likely to be incarcerated and to serve more time than white youth, even when charged with the same category of offense. Reducing disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system is a critical objective for all 16 core and partner Models for Change states.


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