In 2005, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation selected Washington to participate in its Models for Change Juvenile Justice Reform initiative and shortly thereafter tapped the Center for Children & Youth Justice (CCYJ) to be the Lead Entity directing the state effort. Washington was honored to join Pennsylvania, Illinois and Louisiana as the four core states of the initiative.
Reform in a Growing Climate of Fear
Before telling you about what we’ve done in Washington, let me start with some background on the initiative. Travel with me back to the 1980s and early 90s. The era that brought us big hair, shoulder pads and parachute pants also saw a steep increase in violent juvenile crime. (Presumably there’s no correlation between these, but one does wonder.)
The response was pretty much as ugly as the era’s fashions. Without sufficient data to analyze causes, let alone identify solutions, regressive, fear-driven “get-tough-on-juvenile-offenders” policies and practices flourished nationwide. Reform was based on often-conflicting anecdotes: High recidivism was “the result of a system that was soft, ineffective and out of step” or “the consequence of a system that had failed to deliver on promised treatment.”
RESEARCH SHOWS HOW KIDS DIFFER FROM ADULTS
Research Shows How Kids Differ From Adults
RESEARCH SHOWS HOW KIDS DIFFER FROM ADULTS
In an effort to replace anecdote-influenced policy and practice with research-based, data-driven solutions, the Foundation launched the MacArthur Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. Starting in 1996, over the next 10 years the Network conducted research on teens’ competence to stand trial, on their blameworthiness and on the reasons why most youth cease offending. Bolstered by the more recent developments in neuroscience, the MacArthur Research Network’s findings showed that kids differ from adults in significant ways:
- In the way they recognize and respond to risks;
- In the way they control impulses;
- In the way they are influenced by their peers; and
- In their capacity for change.
From the Network’s research emerged a set of Core Principles characterizing a model juvenile justice system responding to these differences.
MACARTHUR CHALLENGES FOR CHANGE
With these Core Principles serving as its foundation, in 2004, the MacArthur Foundation launched the Models for Change Juvenile Justice Reform Initiative. Jurisdictions were challenged to develop fair, effective, developmentally informed juvenile justice practice, to question old-fashioned misconceptions and to replace fear with facts.
Now eight years into the initiative, the Foundation has generously invested more than $100 million in support of reform activities in the 4 Core States and 12 Action Network States. It has an extensive network of committed partners and a long list of success stories, from local practice improvements to major reforms in state policy. And true to the Foundation’s vision, Models for Change has generated practical models that address many of the most pressing needs of young people who become involved with the system.
As is the case with our partner states, Washington Models for Change builds on a legacy of reforms, including efforts commencing in 1991 to identify and address Racial Disproportionality in the Juvenile Justice System; the 1997 Community Juvenile Accountability Act (CJAA), the King County (Seattle) Systems Integration Project launched in 2003 and the 2005 DSHS Children’s Mental Health Initiative.
TARGETING CHANGE IN WASHINGTON STATE
In preparing the Washington State Juvenile Justice Reform Work Plan, CCYJ conducted an exhaustive nine-month information collection process, including data collection/analysis, focus groups, site visits, individual interviews and consultation with the Models for Change National Resource Bank (NRB).
Using what we learned and guided by the Foundation’s Core Principles of a Model Juvenile Justice System, CCYJ developed a work plan to specifically target these underlying concerns:
- The courts had become the primary tool to coerce truant students to return to the classroom and detention was the primary consequence for failure to do so;
- Though we could identify where disproportionate minority contact (DMC) was occurring, even in the face of plummeting offender referrals and fewer youth being detained, DMC persisted;
- Too many kids referred to the system had unidentified and/or untreated mental health issues;
- Many of the youth and families served by the juvenile justice system were simultaneously being served by the child welfare system, yet system “siloes,” both internal and between the systems, created barriers to coordinated case planning, oversight and service delivery; and
- The quality of juvenile indigent defense was inconsistent, and juvenile offenders were allowed to waive their right to legal representation without consulting with an attorney.
Our next BIG step was taking the work plan from proposal to reality. We identified state and local partners (eventually totaling 15) who had experience and/or expertise that would be helpful in advancing the reform effort. With the Washington Work Plan as a guide and in consultation with the NRB, each developed a proposal addressing a specific area or areas of reform and was awarded an implementation grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
LOCAL SUCCESSES, FUTURE OPPORTUNITY
To date, the collaboration between our partners, our NRB consultants and countless other individuals and organizations has resulted in the implementation of more than 80 reform strategies and preliminary results that have shown promise. In Washington Models for Change demonstration sites:
- Fewer truant youth are going to court and/or being detained and more are reengaging in school programs;
- DMC in detention admissions and time served in detention has been reduced, and more youth of color are engaging in evidence-based programs;
- A mental-health focused, school-based diversion program has been successful in resolving conflicts without relying on the formal court system;
- Over one half of Washington’s juveniles reside in counties where policies and practices are being implemented to better serve youth and families that are multi-system involved; and
- With the adoption of new court rules, standards for quality indigent defense have been enacted and no juvenile may waive his/her right to counsel without first having consulted with an attorney.
Having been involved for nearly 40 years, I’ve long been witness to the evolutionary process of system reform. Since 2005, juvenile justice reform in Washington State has benefitted from the MacArthur Foundation’s, and specifically Dr. Laurie Garduque’s belief in a better way for understanding and addressing the needs of juvenile offenders. As Washington Models for Change enters its final stage, we have begun to secure the reforms achieved, seek replication of successful models in other locations and leverage our successes to influence state-level policy and practice.
At the conclusion of Models for Change will Washington State have the model juvenile justice system? Others can, and likely will, be the judge of that. I do know that our system will be improved, and we will have an even broader platform from which to launch future initiatives in the ever-evolving reform process. But most importantly, because of Models for Change, the kids involved in Washington’s juvenile justice system will have a better chance for a successful future.
Bobbe J. Bridge is president and CEO of Center for Children & Youth Justice (CCYJ), founded in 2006. Recognized nationally as a leading advocate for foster care reform, domestic violence victims, truancy prevention, juvenile justice reform and a host of other issues, Justice Bridge also serves the community as a dedicated volunteer and philanthropist.
“Our kids deserve a fighting chance to become strong, self-sufficient and thriving members of the community,” she says. “More unified, better informed child welfare and juvenile justice systems will give them that chance.”