Tale of Two Reforms: MacArthur’s ambitious plan spurs changes and criticism

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Some of the most tangible results of Pennsylvania’s Models for Change Initiative (MFC) could fit in your briefcase. It’s just two documents.

One declares the state government’s commitment to improving services for juvenile offenders after they leave the system; the other declares the state’s commitment to serving the mental health needs of all juveniles.

MFC leaders in Pennsylvania say those statements, and the millions of dollars in state funding that flow from them, are spurring changes in the state’s juvenile justice system.

While the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) hinges on a central goal (reducing detention), the MFC has broader and more varied objectives: such as fixing after-care services in Pennsylvania, lowering juveniles transfers to adult court in Illinois and developing alternatives to incarceration in Louisiana.

It’s too early to thoroughly judge the impact of the four-year-old initiative, which focuses on four states and is funded and spearheaded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago. But while the project has many supporters, the approach has also drawn some skepticism in parts of the juvenile justice field, where negative criticism is often stifled by the scarcity of private foundations interested in the work.

Some believe MFC is too rooted in thinking (research and advocacy) rather than doing (direct services). Others profess disdain toward the project; one person close to the initiative described it as a “pile of bullsh*t.”

Garduque: “The focus is on trying to make sure innovations are being promoted and can be replicated.”

But the most common negative sentiment professed about MFC is confusion. Says a juvenile justice expert who has watched the initiative: “I don’t get what they’re trying to do.”

So, what is the Models for Change Initiative about, and how will we know what it accomplishes?

Looking for Reform in Progress

MacArthur began making juvenile justice grants in 1996, focusing on research as a way to respond to the national trend toward combating youth violence with adult punishments. The major grantee was the Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, founded and completely funded by the foundation and housed in Temple University’s psychology department.

Work conducted by members of the network and other MacArthur grantees helped to solidify a fundamental theory behind recent juvenile justice reform: that adolescent brain development made juveniles’ decision-making processes markedly different from those of adults. The network’s research was critical to one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most significant juvenile justice decisions: the 2005 ban on the death penalty for juvenile offenders.

MCF grew out of that research, billed, as its website says, as an attempt to “regenerate juvenile justice in America.” MacArthur decided to fund efforts in four states to build systems that are “rational, fair, effective and developmentally appropriate.”

Out of 14 states considered, Mac-Arthur chose Pennsylvania and Washington in 2005, adding Illinois and Louisiana in 2006.

Laurie Garduque, the program manager in charge of the initiative for MacArthur, says the states were selected after “interviews with key informants, reviewing documents and written materials on reform, the legislative track record [in the state] and examining the state of crisis a system was in.”

The foundation did not want to start from scratch. Its goal was to find states where reform was already on the agenda, then find locations within those states that could improve particular aspects of their systems.

MacArthur “looked at where reforms were already taking place, where they could add value,” says Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a Washington-based group that oversees much of the initiative’s work on disproportionate minority contact. MFC went into those states “not because of a gigantic need, but because they had made progress and the foundation felt it could accelerate progress.”

Comparing the impact of MFC with that of JDAI, Soler makes this analogy: “JDAI starts a train moving. MFC accelerates the speed of a train.”

 Click chart to enlarge.

Garduque describes it as a “top-down, bottom-up” approach: changing state laws and regulations, then supporting a “climate at the local level to facilitate” reforms.

Pennsylvania, the longest-running MFC state, offers a look at how the effort has taken shape.

Choosing Partners

The plan in Pennsylvania, as in all the states, was to fund efforts to develop an aspect of the juvenile justice system in a handful of counties, then help those counties share what they learn with the rest of the state.

Pennsylvania was a good fit. It “was a state where many good things were happening” in juvenile justice, says Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center (JLC). MacArthur “had made juvenile justice grants for years” in Pennsylvania.

The first major move was to choose a lead agency; in Pennsylvania, that was the nonprofit JLC, which had recently worked on a MacArthur-funded curriculum for juvenile court personnel on adolescent development. The MFC initiative in Illinois is run by a university’s law center; in Louisiana, by the state board of regents; and in Washington, by a nonprofit that was founded just months before it became the lead agency. (See box.)

JLC helped MacArthur choose three aspects of the juvenile justice system to improve, invite proposals from potential partner organizations and select jurisdictions that seemed promising for progress. In each of the states, one of the three aspects must be disproportionate minority contact, which is also a focus of JDAI.

Choosing sites based on their perceived chances of success meant that some needy places were left out. For example, juvenile justice leaders in New Orleans were angry after their city was passed over as one of Louisiana’s MFC sites, because MacArthur decided it would be difficult to improve the juvenile system in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

What Do the Sites Do?

“The difficulty in getting your arms around Models for Change is that there are a lot of things happening,” says Schwartz of JLC. On any given day, even he isn’t always up to speed on where sites around Pennsylvania stand on their various projects.

The Pennsylvania Model: The MFC is designed so that investments in coordination, research and best practices will flow through that state and into others.

Click model to enlarge.

Six groups focus on improving after-care services, in Philadelphia, Lycoming County and York County. The projects include training judges to use the after-care option effectively, a reintegration reform initiative in Philadelphia and improving the academic content provided to youths in residential treatment so that schools will accept the credits that youths earn at the centers.

“I’d say the entire culture of aftercare has changed in Pennsylvania,” Schwartz says. “There is a new way of thinking about re-entry.”

He says Philadelphia has posted “enormous reductions in length of stay [in secure commitment facilities], reduction in recidivism and [reduction in] return to placements.”

Erie and Chester counties focus on mental health strategies, such as developing mental health screening tools for juvenile justice intake.

Over five years, the foundation will pump $10 million into JLC and the other local partners. That does not include the “National Resource Bank” – the national groups funded by MacArthur to help the MFC states.

Local Success

It’s a little early to judge MFC. Pennsylvania, the first state to begin, is in its fourth year. Nevertheless, Schwartz says some changes would not have happened without MacArthur:

• Several state agencies issued joint statements delineating new policy goals on after care and mental health. Those goals included scaling after-care supervision to match offender risk and need assessments, having juvenile defenders and prosecutors present for all disposition reviews and creating uniform mental health-screening standards.

“It was a big deal, because it established a vision early and it had the imprimatur of government,” Schwartz says. More than 30 of the state’s 67 counties have committed themselves to meeting goals laid out in the after-care statement by 2010.

• The board of the State Advisory Group (SAG) got completely behind the mission of the initiative, thanks in no small part to the fact that Schwartz and other MFC stakeholders were on the board. The SAG put $2 million into after care in the original MFC counties.

• Cambria, a small county, developed a re-entry job training program with Goodwill Industries, using a grant through the SAG. Cambria’s juvenile court began referring youths to the program as an alternative to incarceration. Other counties are referring youths to the program as well, having found out about it because Cambria’s chief juvenile probation officer sits on the MFC working group on after care.

• In Allegheny County, the SAG funded education specialists discovered two critical shortcomings in the educational services at the county’s residential treatment centers: Schools weren’t acknowledging their credits when students returned to school from stays at treatment centers, and the vocational training did not match up with jobs that youth would realistically get after release. MacArthur-funded specialists found that the same was true in Philadelphia County. And because a huge number of juveniles from other counties ended up in Allegheny and Philadelphia residential centers, this was a state problem.

So MacArthur kicked in $400,000, the SAG another $340,000 and local grant maker the Stoneleigh Center $300,000 to start a partnership between the two counties to develop an accredited curriculum and vocational classes centered on jobs that exist in the communities that use Allegheny- and Philadelphia-based residential treatment centers.

“Philly and Allegheny had never worked together” on juvenile justice – “in my lifetime,” Schwartz says.

Can it Spread?

But such local changes are part of the process, not the goal. Garduque says MacArthur is less interested in MCF’s specific impact than in its ability to export the success. It will, however, measure each state after five years on these outcomes: racial disparities; the number of transfers to adult courts; the number of youth served by alternative programs; recidivism rates; and the rates at which incarceration and community-based alternative sanctions are used.

The first goal is to ensure that all counties within each state are eventually trained on the processes instituted by the model sites, so those states can help other states duplicate the reforms.

“Maybe other funders, or OJJDP, might decide to create incentives” for states to study MFC state projects, Garduque suggests. Right now, though, “the focus is on trying to make sure innovations are being promoted and can be replicated.”

It is that premise – that counties will push states, and states will nudge other states – that leads some to believe that Models for Change is doomed to fail.

“It’s a pile of bullsh•t,” says one juvenile justice veteran and former senior staff member at an MFC grantee. “The money is only good because it allowed us to fund our non-MacArthur work.”

Staffers at other organizations involved in MFC also expressed doubt that the initiative would make much difference on a large scale. Others also said a primary reason they took MacArthur money aimed at MFC work was to help sustain other projects financially.

That is a problem that plagues both JDAI and MFC, says Sarah Walker, who chairs JDAI's DMC project in Ramsey County, Minn., and recently considered taking a job with Garduque at Models for Change. Both foundations have a stated focus and fund nonprofits to help carry out their objectives. No one has to take the money, but the direction from funders doesn’t always sit well with nonprofits and advocates.

“Casey and MacArthur demonstrate the challenges of philanthropy,” Walker says. “Philanthropy should not be removed from the day-to-day struggles of organizations and initiative, but the power imbalance is too great and limits innovation, creativity and discourse.”

Garduque says the harsh criticism is “a little surprising. MacArthur hasn’t dictated an agenda. Folks don’t subscribe to Macarthur’s vision.”

Nevertheless, she says, “We need to do better job of communicating our goals, theory and action.”