Better models for juvenile justice

Juvenile justice is returning to its founding principles of protection, treatment, and rehabilitation, while embracing the equally important principles of accountability and public safety.

Amid news stories that raise the specter of increasing juvenile crime, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that crime rates overall, particularly for violent crimes, are still near 30-year lows. The cries of alarm are reminiscent of those heard in the early 1990s, when a rise in violent juvenile crime and myths of superpredators helped transform a system that had been focused on individualized treatment and rehabilitation for nearly a century into one that was increasingly harsh and punitive.

The impact of these policies began to hit home. Thousands of adolescents, locked up during a critical period of development, returned to their communities without the skills or support to lead productive lives. A disproportionately large number of them were young minorities. The cost of "get tough" policies was measured not only in escalating budgets of prisons and detention centers and rising recidivism rates, but also in reduced public safety and the loss of human potential.

Over the past decade, groundbreaking research on adolescent development and on what works to help young people steer clear of crime has brought about more rational and effective policies. Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington were among the first to incorporate this new knowledge in reshaping our juvenile justice systems.

Now, in partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Models for Change initiative, we are working to further improve juvenile justice policy and practice across the country. However, these efforts could be at risk if public opinion becomes unnecessarily inflamed again.

Illinois launched the nation's first juvenile justice system more than a century ago. But, like many other states in the 1990s, it turned away from its historic rehabilitative mission, transferring a growing number of youths to adult court. The result was a sharp rise in recidivism rates and a growing racial disparity in incarceration rates.

Illinois is now renewing its commitment to juvenile justice by enacting a new law to separate the juvenile and adult systems to better protect young people. Redeploy Illinois, a model demonstration in four counties, provides incentives to place nonviolent juvenile offenders in community-based programs. As a result of this program, Illinois has reduced commitments of nonviolent juveniles by 44 percent at its pilot sites since 2004.

In the 1990s, Louisiana had the highest juvenile incarceration rate in the nation and some of the worst juvenile prisons. A lawsuit brought by the US Department of Justice spurred major reforms, including the closing of a large juvenile correction facility. Louisiana also separated juvenile from adult corrections, first by executive order and then by statute.

In less than a decade, the state has reduced the number of incarcerated youths by more than 70 percent while also lowering crime rates. Now Louisiana is developing alternatives to the court system that will hold youths accountable while engaging their families and communities.

Pennsylvania has long had fiscal incentives to encourage community-based programs. The state introduced "balanced and restorative justice," an individualized approach that considers the goals of accountability, community protection, and youth development at the same time. Pennsylvania is now establishing high-quality aftercare programs to help young offenders acquire life skills and become productive citizens. It is also one of the first states to mandate that counties report race and ethnicity data at key points in case processing, a critical step in reducing disparities.

Washington has a long history of using research to inform juvenile justice policy-making. Ongoing evaluation of its programs and services has demonstrated which ones effectively reduce juvenile crime and recidivism.

Now the state is expanding these evidence-based programs throughout the state to reach youths before they become deeply involved in the juvenile justice system. The state's functional family therapy program has reduced recidivism rates by 38 percent and saved taxpayers $10.69 for every $1 invested.

Change under way in our states and others appears to be the beginning of a new wave of reform. Juvenile justice is returning to its founding principles of protection, treatment, and rehabilitation, while embracing the equally important principles of accountability and public safety.

These reforms are firmly rooted in scientific research, ongoing assessment, and continuing evolution in policy and practice. We hope that other states will join us. With every state that participates in these efforts, our knowledge increases and, with it, the prospects for success.

Rod R. Blagojevich is the governor of Illinois. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco is the governor of Louisiana. Edward G. Rendell is the governor of Pennsylvania, and Chris Gregoire is the governor of Washington.

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