The first juvenile court was founded in Chicago in 1889 on the principle that juveniles were different than adults and should be treated as such. This point of view, now called the 1st wave of juvenile justice reform, prevailed for most of the next century until courts became more punitive, practices less enlightened, and youth confined for long periods. In 1967, with the in re Gault decision, the Supreme Court extended to juveniles the Constitutional protections against self-incrimination, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to counsel. This case marked the beginning of what is considered the 2nd wave of reform.
A sharp rise in juvenile crime in the 1980s and early 1990s led to a backlash, with prominent national figures warning of a coming tide of super-predator youth. Stage legislatures across the US responded by enacting a surplus of punitive measures treating juveniles much like adult offenders. This unfortunate backlash is considered the third wave of juvenile justice reform.
Contrary to the dire and certain predictions, no tide materialized, and by the early 2000’s the youth crime spike had disappeared. What remained were harsh sentences and policies that treated young people as if they were fully-formed, mature adults. Minor offenses snowballed into major consequences, and secure youth detention facilities were full to overflowing. This hyperbolic overreaction had tremendous financial and societal costs.
Prompted by the deteriorating outcomes for juveniles involved in the justice system, the MacArthur Foundation became involved in 1996. Temple Professor and national adolescent development authority Laurence Steinberg was recruited to lead the Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice Research Network (ADJJ). Steinberg and his collaborators explored the evidence behind the assumptions of the first juvenile court - that young people are different from adults and should be treated as such in the eyes of the law.
After a decade of research, the network reached a few major conclusions: juveniles are much less competent than adults to deal with court proceedings; juveniles are much less culpable for their actions due to a range of mitigating factors related to developmental immaturity; and juveniles are amenable to change-they can reform their behavior. In the words of Steinberg describing competence, “It’s not just that adolescents don’t have the life experience to understand the system. It’s the way they think, and how they use information to make decisions.”
The United States Supreme Court took notice and in three decisions over the course of a decade established juveniles as a category of offenders whose youth and immaturity mitigates their culpability even in the most serious offenses. The court also noted that juveniles were more likely to reform than adults and should be given opportunities for growth and development. Harsh sentences suitable for adults are not appropriate for immature youth. Treating juveniles like adults was now understood as a costly and harmful mistake.
Launching State-Based Initiatives
Findings from the ADJJ Research Network supported the developmentally appropriate realignment of juvenile justice systems to treat young people like vulnerable, immature kids capable of change.
Models for Change was launched to help state and local leaders understand and act on the developmental approach to juvenile justice suggested by the research. After consultation with a broad array of leaders, a framework for action was developed that emphasized local priority-setting within the context of a set of unifying principles, with the hope of creating multiple models of successful juvenile justice reforms.
Models for Change aimed to harness and direct local reform work into a coordinated effort to catalyze change across the nation. The initiative began by working comprehensively on juvenile justice systems reform in four core states chosen for their prominence, diversity, and readiness for change. Following the formal launch of Models for Change in Pennsylvania in 2004, the initiative expanded to Illinois in 2005, to Louisiana in 2006, and Washington in 2007. These system-wide efforts created model reforms to be studied, shared, and adapted.
Models for Change expanded to 16 states through the creation of multi-state action networks focusing on key areas of reform: disproportionate minority contact; mental health and juvenile justice reform; and juvenile indigent defense. The action networks created forums for sharing and distributing best-practices on common issues. Collaborations with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) expanded Models for Change reach to 35 states.
For ten years, Models for Change hosted a well-attended annual working conference for initiative participants. These gatherings facilitated the transfer of first-hand knowledge of successful reform approaches. They contributed to the energetic embrace of reform by both national and local leaders. Participant’s enthusiasm, the research, and an ever-growing list of successes provided a compelling argument.
The initiative deepened its focus on key reform areas through the development of four Resource Centers addressing status offense reform, mental health and juvenile justice, juvenile indigent defense and dual status youth. The Centers provided administrators, practitioners, and policymakers with technical assistance, training, and proven tools and resources to implement reforms and strengthen their practices.
A group of Strategic Allies representing state legislators, counties, courts, corrections officials, law enforcement and others involved in juvenile justice participated in planning and evaluation, hosted events with their members, and worked to promote successful juvenile justice approaches. These partnerships helped Models for Change spread to nearly every state in the US, where state and local leaders embraced the developmental approach to juvenile justice and made it their own.
Models for Change provided tools and resources for reformers, policymakers, and practitioners and created a forum for leadership on improving juvenile justice practices.
State-Based Policy Reform
A policy reform effort was established in 2010 to introduce the developmental approach to legislative leaders. The National Campaign to Reform State Juvenile Justice Systems was supported by a collaborative of like-minded funders recruited by the MacArthur Foundation. From 2011 through 2017, the highly-successful Campaign supported local reform campaigns in 37 states.
Mistakes Kids Make
A national communications campaign centered around the theme “Mistakes Kids Make” focused on changing the narrative about the young people involved in the juvenile justice system. A targeted social media presence and successful media placements reinforced the message that kids are different from adults and should be treated differently by the justice system.
The MacArthur Foundation’s support for research did not stop with the ADJJ research network. The Foundation co-funded the Research on Pathways to Desistance study, a multi-site, longitudinal study of serious adolescent offenders as they transition from adolescence into early adulthood and the Crossroads study, a multi-site research project investigating the long-term impacts of formal versus informal processing of first-time juvenile offenders. The Pathways study concluded that even adolescents who have committed serious offenses are not necessarily on track for adult criminal careers. The Crossroads study is still developing but aims to provide empirical research to help judges, probation officers and DAs in making decisions about what youth to divert from the juvenile justice system.
Models for Change directly impacted the direction of juvenile justice systems across the United States and improved the prospects of hundreds of thousands of young people and their families affected by those systems. The MacArthur Foundation invested in research and implementation models that institutionalized the developmental approach as the new standard for juvenile justice systems and programs nationwide and developed leaders who became torch-bearers for that standard.
MacArthur-funded research laid the foundation for a new understanding of young people and attitudes about how best to respond when they came into contact with the juvenile justice system. Models for Change implemented those new approaches, demonstrating results and pathways to success. The accompanying state policy advocacy campaign informed state legislators with new rationales for eliminating punitive policies in favor of the developmental approach. In 2013, The National Academy of Sciences released a report Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach (2013). It offered a full-throated endorsement “for reforming the nation’s juvenile justice systems in a developmentally informed manner.
Collectively, these investments in juvenile justice reform contributed powerfully to creating the conditions for the widespread Fourth Wave of American juvenile justice system reform. While work remains, an engaged field of scholars, practitioners, reformers, and administrators are continuing to advance the developmental approach to juvenile justice. Once again, the field is moving nearer the understanding of the first juvenile court that juveniles were different than adults and should be treated as such.