We Can Reform Juvenile Justice

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Most of us in youth work would agree there is a crying need to move policies and programs toward a more balanced approach to juvenile justice, concentrating on positive youth development and prevention rather than on punishment and incarceration. But there is a shocking lack of advocacy for bringing about these changes at the state level, where most key policy and program decisions are made.

The same is not true of our efforts regarding early childhood approaches, for which there has been active and productive statewide advocacy for increased day care, Head Start, all-day kindergarten and after-school programs.

Is this because of a perception that the needs of younger kids are easier to advocate for than those of adolescents? After all, don’t issues surrounding race, sex and violence arouse the kinds of feelings that make advocacy in the juvenile justice field more challenging?

Perhaps. But the experiences in more than a dozen states where collaborations have formed to change the way policies and programs are formulated and implemented give hope that we can do better.

The experiences were observed through a demonstration project at the University of Pennsylvania that I directed over the past four years, funded at $800,000 by the MacArthur Foundation. My role has been to stimulate the development in five pilot states of broad-based statewide collaborations that engage youth-serving and advocacy organizations in reforming juvenile justice systems.

Two reports help show how this can be done: “Statewide Juvenile Advocacy Project: Final Report,” a research study that focuses on what was learned from the five statewide pilots, and “Forming and Sustaining Juvenile Justice Collaborations: A Practical Guide,” produced by the National Assembly of Health and Human Service Organizations. (Both are available under “reports” at www.ssw.upenn.edu/crysp.) These documents focus not only on the pilot project’s five original states (Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania), but also on parallel work carried out in other states, including Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Accomplishments at the state level fall into three categories: legislative, policy and budgetary.

Examples of legislative successes include abolishing the juvenile death penalty in Indiana and passing “Redeploy Illinois,” which rewards communities that reduce commitment to confinement beds so that they can build a continuum of community-based programs for youth who would otherwise be confined.

Successful policy changes advanced by collaborations include Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell’s establishment of a Children’s Cabinet to coordinate services and programs offered by public agencies and systems that serve youth, and initiatives in Maryland and Delaware to reduce the number of youth held in state detention facilities by emphasizing, among other changes, increased alternatives to detention. Similar efforts in Florida halted a state plan to fund more long-term residential beds.

As for budgets, collaborations have succeeded in several states, such as Michigan and Florida, in halting severe reductions in or even elimination of funding for prevention and treatment programs.

Under the collaboration model, each state builds its own advocacy agenda. The promising practices identified in the reports cited above focus on themes such as requirements for collaboration, phases of collaboration development, factors that influence the success of the collaboration, carrying out an advocacy campaign and achieving financial stability.

Until now, most of the advocacy on these issues has come from the legal community through class-action lawsuits. This strategy is often cumbersome and usually does not bring about the desired change by itself.

The collaborative approach, though it often takes longer, can also last longer if new constituencies are educated and engaged in the process of building ongoing statewide collaborations for youth. To bring about true reform, we need to join the legal advocates with youth-serving and youth advocacy organizations as well as with citizens’ groups, including parents and youth.

There are a few strong allies in the foundation community who are supporting these efforts, including the Annie E. Casey, JEHT (Justice, Equality, Humanitarianism and Tolerance) and MacArthur foundations and the Open Society Institute. MacArthur recently funded a fifth year of its collaboration project in order to develop a national network of the more than 20 statewide reform efforts. We are not interested in starting a new nonprofit, but in finding a home for the network within an existing national nonprofit.

As youth workers, we are all advocates for youth. It is hoped that this emerging national network will help us focus more effort on one of the most important challenges we face: juvenile justice reform.

Tom McKenna, former national executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, is a project director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Research on Youth and Social Policy.