Racial Disparities Persist After Years of Juvenile Justice Reform, Models for Change Leaders Say

WASHINGTON — James Bell, founder and president of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, told a gathering of juvenile justice reformers earlier this month that it was time to begin “an uncomfortable” conversation about racial disparities in the youth justice system.

He made the comments to Models for Change stakeholders gathered here to discuss the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s final evaluations of the $121 million juvenile justice reform initiative, which began in 2004. It ended as MacArthur changed its emphasis from reforming youth justice to jail reform.

The daylong meeting centered around the many success Models for Change helped bring about, from reducing incarceration sentences to influencing states to stop shackling youth in courts to raising the age at which teens are treated as adults in court.

[Laurie Garduque video | Accomplishments]

Bobbe Bridge, founder and president of Center for Children & Youth Justice in Washington state, said, “Models for Change was certainly the catalyst in accelerating reform. We have certainly changed the conversation.”

Yet, thanks in part to Models for Change support for data collection, it is apparent that racial disparities in the youth justice system, if anything, have gotten worse, not better.

A MacArthur-commissioned evaluation of Models for Change by Mathematica Policy Research found that disparity “persists, mostly at pre-Models for Change levels.” The Sentencing Project recently reported that in 2015 black male youth were five times more likely to be locked up than white youth.

[Laurie Garduque video | Racial disparities]

Speaking of the reforms, Bell said, “What we now know after 10 years of informed analysis is that all of those things have benefitted white kids and the racial disparities persist.”

In the past, he said, the reformers wanted “to get something rather than nothing” so the discussions that might have made decision-makers uncomfortable didn’t happen. Now, he says, “As we go into 2.0 of reform policy we are going to make people very uncomfortable to examine why the disparities still persist.”

Laurie Garduque, who led the Models for Change initiative at the MacArthur Foundation, said although the disparities rate has not improved, the harm done to youth in the system has been reduced for kids of color. “Fewer of them are being swept up in the system, more of them are being diverted and remain in the community, fewer are incarcerated; the incarceration rate has dropped dramatically, somewhere between 40 and 60 percent depending on the state,” she said.

Laurie Garduque

She added, “You are dealing with a host of economic, structural and political issues … you can’t expect the justice system to overcome. So there has to be an acknowledgement that we can make the system fairer and more just, but the deck is stacked against certain groups in such a way that it is very hard to make it equitable.”

The Mathematica evaluation reports that in states where Models for Change concentrated its effort:

  • “Significant paradigm shifts not only continued during Models for Change, they were propelled by it ...
  • “State and local stakeholders became more aware of the harms of detaining youth, particularly low risk youth, in out-of-home placements.
  • “The poor conditions that characterized confinement drew attention and litigation.
  • “Evidence mounted about the ill effects of formal involvement in the justice system.
  • “As these perspectives took shape, so did intentions to divert youth from pretrial detention and secure confinement and from the justice system entirely.
  • “As interest in diversion and serving youth in the community grew, evidence-based programs emerged as desirable alternatives to secure confinement and formal processing.“

Models for Change was not the only group influencing change. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) is active in seeking community-based alternatives to youthful incarceration.

Donald K. Ross of Malkin & Ross said his public policy firm, which worked for Models for Change, hired 56 different lobbying firms to work with states to help bring about reforms. For example, at the beginning of Models for Change in 2004 only 10 states forbade shackling of youth in courtrooms. Today there are 31 such states.

[Laurie Garduque video | Changes]

Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center, said that when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that kids are different, it gave everyone the freedom to use the youth developmental language. Yet, “what we haven’t eliminated is a persistently punitive response to offending in this country that still infiltrates and drives our criminal justice system.”

[Laurie Garduque video | Language]

Garduque said the research the MacArthur Foundation helped underwrite established the legally relevant ways that kids are different from adults, which was made concrete by Supreme Court decisions. Now there is a reluctance to think of young people as the worst thing they have done and focus instead on the individual young person.

Marsha Levick

The field was forced to ask, she said, “How can we hold young people accountable for their transgressions in ways that recognize that they are not adults and doesn’t jeopardize their future life chances and gives them the skills and competencies to become successful adults?”

[Laurie Garduque video | Future]

What’s most gratifying for her is that “Those principles have been adopted and now seem to be secure and are the basis for another generation of law and policy reform where we are rolling back those harsh and punitive sanctions.”     

Leonard Witt is executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism, the publisher of the JJIE. The JJIE was a MacArthur Foundation Models for Change grantee.  

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‘Models for Change’ Series Available Online

A series of eight reports that summarize effective strategies to improve services and treatment of juveniles in the justice system is now available through the Models for Change Research Initiative website.

At a time of tight federal, state and local budgets, the aim of the “Knowledge Briefs” series is to share pioneering strategies that communities can study and possibly duplicate within their own juvenile systems. Supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has spent some $100 million on juvenile justice reform efforts since 2004, the series outlines inventive approaches adopted by different states to cost-effectively improve the outlook for young people leaving the justice system and re-entering society.

The series includes a study that examined whether young people at three sites in Louisiana and Washington state were treated differently in probation if they belonged to a minority race or ethnic group, and a cost-benefit analysis from a juvenile center in Cook County, Ill., that could serve as an example of how to determine whether certain reforms are worth the money.

Although the reports were published last December, the MacArthur Foundation announced their release as a series a couple of weeks ago, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention within the U.S. Department of Justice promoted their availability in an email to its news subscribers yesterday.

In January, the OJJDP announced a $2 million partnership with the MacArthur Foundation to support key reforms in the juvenile justice system. One aspect of the partnership involves federal help in “disseminating knowledge and innovations that have emerged” from the Models for Change initiative, explained Andrew Solomon, a spokesman for the MacArthur Foundation.

The $2 million – funded in equal part by the foundation and by the OJJDP – is going to four organizations over two years. These organizations, which include the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, will offer technical assistance and training to state and local governments in four critical areas: improving mental health screenings and risk and needs assessments for juveniles in the system; providing training for juvenile detention and corrections staff to deal with the mental health needs of juveniles; reducing ethnic and racial disparities within the juvenile justice system; and better coordinating the services offered to youth by the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

All four organizations funded by the partnership have previously worked on the Models for Change initiative by developing, implementing and evaluating best-practice blueprints for reforms in juvenile justice.

Report Finds States Pulling Back from Tough Laws of ’80s, ’90s (Watch the Video)

By Natalie Krebs and Eric Ferkenhoff

Keynote speaker Robert Schwartz / Photo by Gideon Resnick of The Chicago Bureau

CHICAGO-Fears that a generation of menacing adolescents would stalk cities and kill at will never came to pass, and it appears states have gotten the message. Legislators are now relaxing harsh laws against minors enacted in the late 1980s and 1990s, according to a report out Tuesday.

The study found children lack the mental capacity to commit crimes as adults. States have also raised the age at which juveniles may transfer to adult courts, and they now recognize most minors involved in crimes have some type of mental illness.

But the racial disparities plaguing the juvenile justice system were among the most telling findings, with statistics heavily skewed against blacks and Hispanics. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) study reported, “minority youth come into contact with the juvenile justice system at every stage at a higher rate than their white counterparts.”

In response to this imbalance, 10 states – including Illinois – enacted disproportionate minority contact legislation between 2001 and 2011, the years covered in the report.

This echoes a study by the same group in 2009, in which the introduction states:

“African- Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans comprise a combined one-third of the nation’s youth population. Yet they account for over two-thirds of the youth in secure juvenile facilities.”

Tuesday’s report – released during the NCSL's meeting in Chicago and funded by the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – goes on to say that research “suggests that minority youth receive harsher treatment than their white counterparts at nearly every stage of the juvenile justice process.”

MacArthur Foundation Luncheon at the NCSL, with Robert Schwartz from The Chicago Bureau on Vimeo.

The start of such tough juvenile sentences largely stemmed from the violence of the 1980s and 1990s, when powerful street gangs were looking to control territory in Chicago and other cities across the country.

Stories about youth like Yummy Sandifer – an 11-year-old boy hunted by police for gunning down a 14-year-old girl and later killed by teen members of his own gang – made the cover of Time magazine. Biographers wrote books about ‘Little B,’ and authorities arrested young men and women at alarming rates for abandoning, killing, maiming and neglecting children.

It was a frightening period, and lawmakers were scared into action. State legislators passed laws that treated young children – just 12 and 13 in some cases – as adults, which automatically transferred their cases to adult court based on the nature of their crimes.

But in recent years, the courts have discussed adolescent development literature, according to the executive director of Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Law Center, Robert Schwartz.

“[They’re] recognizing adolescent’s impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions,” Schwartz said. “Their vulnerability to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressures, and their capacity for change. Those differences, at the word of experts, make juveniles less guilty by reason of adolescence. Youth isn’t a defense, but it is a mitigator.”

Cities and states are giving a nod to this, with some passing laws that loosen the grip on teens and minors while others revisit the issue.

But for many officials, it’s more than just making decisions that aim to benefit children; for some, it’s just as much about costs which are much higher for incarceration than, for example, some treatments.

At the same time, it’s not about making excuses for youth violence and other crimes; they must be held accountable – just at the age they are, according those at the event Tuesday.

For its part, The MacArthur Foundation has started programs in 35 jurisdictions in 15 states. The idea is to build on rehabilitative services much more than punishment for crimes committed when, according to research, young brains were so underdeveloped they couldn’t grasp the gravity of the crime.

The problem, according to many experts, is there is no consistency in the system. Fifty states; 50 systems of juvenile justice. Few argue for an overall federal law, but some sameness in the legal community could help in organizing records and tracking children as they mature through the system.

The report does credit moves by the United States Supreme Court in moving states to action and away from reactive policies that punish more than help juveniles.

For example, in 2005, the death penalty was taken off the books for juveniles. Five years later, life without parole was erased for all minors convicted for crimes less severe than murder.

Then this year, in June, the high court ruled that mandatory life without parole for minors was unjust even in the case of murder, siding with arguments that a child’s brain is not developed to the point where adult decisions can be made, thought through and acted upon.

Along the way, the court cited MacArthur Research Network studies about the nature of adolescents. In a word, they’re impulsive, and should not be held to the same standard as actual adults even if the crime is fitting for tough penalties. (Here, in Illinois, the state raised the age from 17 to 18 for juveniles to be treated as adults for misdemeanor crimes.)

The Supreme Court’s rulings prompted action on the state level – which, to some degree, seemed as budget-minded as it was a recognition of a child’s mental state.

“Research also shows that moving 16- and 17-year-old youth out of the adult system into the juvenile system will return about $3 in benefits for every $1 in cost,” the report found.

But states did make their own moves. Arizona was out front, passing a law in 2001, the first year studied in the report, that said juveniles must be placed in residential facilities if “the juvenile has psychological and mental health needs and requires the court to periodically review the progress of the treatment given.”

Even traditionally non-progressive states have made seemingly bold moves.

Consider Georgia, which has recently been debating a wholesale overhaul of its juvenile system.

In 2006, the state began mandating full mental health evaluations of juveniles deemed not competent, meaning the minors be exposed to community-based treatments and other rehabilitative services before detention in a secure facility is even considered.

“The legislative trends evidenced during the past decade,” according to the report’s findings, “reflect a new understanding of adolescent development and the value of cost-benefit analysis of existing data-driven research."

SAMHSA, MacArthur Foundation to Promote Diversion Programs for Youth With Mental Health Issues

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have teamed up for a new $1 million project to divert youth with behavioral health conditions away from the juvenile justice system and into community-based programs and services.

According to SAMHSA, 60-70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental disorder and more than 60 percent suffer from a substance abuse disorder. Many of these youth, SAMHSA says, wind up in the juvenile justice system rather than receiving treatment for their underlying disorders.

Up to eight states will be selected competitively to participate in the new collaborative initiative. If selected, states would receive support to develop and initiate policies and programs to divert youth away from the juvenile justice system early.

"This innovative effort will help ensure that fewer at- risk young people fall through the cracks and into an overburdened juvenile justice system that is very often unable to address their underlying behavioral health problems," SAMHSA Administrator Pam Hyde said in a press release. "This initiative focuses on helping divert these youth whenever possible to community-based behavioral health services that can actually turn their lives around for the better."

The program will combine SAMHSA’s Policy Academy initiative and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Action Network and will emphasize reducing the overrepresentation of youth of color with mental and/or substance use disorders in the juvenile justice system while incorporating mental, substance use and co-occurring screening and assessment practices throughout the juvenile justice system recognizing the important roles of evidence-based practice, treatment, and trauma-informed services.

The National Center for Mental Health, Juvenile Justice at Policy Research Associates, Inc. and the Technical Assistance Collaborative, Inc. have agreed to coordinate the proposed initiative.

“The states selected will have access to leading experts in the field and the latest research and information on front-end diversion policies and programs for youth with co-occurring disorders,” said Laurie Garduque, Director of Justice Reform for the MacArthur Foundation. “With the seamless integration of SAMHSA’s and MacArthur’s demonstrated strategies for effective training and technical assistance, we will promote broader diffusion and new adaptations of models of best practices to states committed to systems reform.”