A New Strategy for Juvenile Justice Reform: Local Leadership, Incremental Change

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Marie WilliamsAfter Nov. 8, the juvenile justice field has had to make a few adjustments. Undoubtedly, juvenile justice reformers will still — as they should — prepare their transition memoranda and talking points. They will dig, though perhaps now a little deeper, to find areas of potential leverage with the incoming administration.

But even the most optimistic of observers must consider that juvenile justice reform might not be among the top priorities for the new president or Congress. Our hope that the federal government will assume leadership in moving the needle on the past decade’s reform objectives may not come to pass.

So what does the field do now? Although there may be a momentary sense of disorientation, there are a few points to remember.

First, reform has always been local. Apart from the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act itself, true groundbreaking reform in juvenile justice has almost always originated at the state level. And even that legislation was driven by observations, information and energy from practitioners and advocates who were well-positioned to see how poorly we were serving young people who came into conflict with the law and how we might address it.

The results of this election won’t change that. Reform can happen — and even thrive — no matter the national political climate, and successes in one community can often be replicated in another.

Second, reform has always depended largely on committed and capable leadership. Whether driven by the advocacy community or others, durable reform rarely occurs simply because a vocal minority decides to rage against the machine. Finding and supporting strong, credible and dedicated leadership has always been essential for reform to flourish. And, when well-connected and knowledgeable about the local context, that leadership is likely to succeed.

Third, the resources for juvenile justice have always come overwhelmingly from state coffers. Without exception, more than 90 percent of states’ juvenile justice funding is appropriated not by Congress but by state legislatures. This knowledge should help debunk the myth that the strong arm of the feds is the best, or only, avenue to change.

And finally, though many of us are loath to acknowledge as much at this early stage, we really don’t know what a Trump presidency will look like for juvenile justice. The void of clear policy positions may seem like a drawback, but it is also an extraordinary opportunity to build partnerships and try to foster a collaborative spirit with an administration getting its bearings on a multitude of complex issues.

Before the election, the juvenile justice community was paying close attention to the forecasts of the political intelligentsia and primed to make their case to a longtime advocate for children and families, a former staffer at the Children’s Defense Fund who has spoken often about the challenges facing juvenile justice reformers.

Now, as the nation prepares for a Trump administration, there are more questions than answers about how juvenile justice reform will fare under the incoming president. What we do know is that President-Elect Trump has made many statements that lean in the direction of the now discredited tough-on-crime policies of the ’90s, and that some of his rhetoric seems to evince a limited understanding of the communities most affected by much of current juvenile justice practice and policy. Still, this will not be the first time the cause of reforming our nation’s juvenile justice systems has faced a potentially challenging political environment.

For more than a decade, juvenile justice was such a low priority — even in a so-called “friendly” administration — that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention remained leaderless and rudderless, only recently benefiting from the visionary leadership of former Philadelphia Chief Juvenile Defender Robert Listenbee.

And in Congress, funding for juvenile justice programs has declined steadily, reaching a nadir in 2014 and 2015 when some of the resource streams (Title V and the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant program) were zeroed out altogether. Nevertheless, there were significant gains in juvenile justice led largely by well-funded philanthropic endeavors, like the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), now reforming systems in 40 states and 300 counties nationwide; and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative, which since 2004 poured more than $100 million into creating a network of juvenile justice reform innovators in 35 states and at the federal level.

Other foundations like the Public Welfare Foundation and Open Society Institute turned their attention to thorny issues like improving racial and ethnic fairness, ending juvenile life without parole and keeping nondelinquent youth out of confinement.

At the same time, a tenacious group of organizations at the national level, the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC), quietly but doggedly worked at keeping a key group of senators and national policymakers informed and engaged on juvenile justice. And just recently, the NJJDPC scored a few notable successes: They helped get the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act out of the Judiciary Committee and into the Senate, and more recently, out of the Committee on Education and the Workforce on the House side as well.

In both cases, the bill had Republican and Democratic champions and seemed poised to move. In the Senate, the bill’s progress was interrupted by an ideologue; in the House, it was halted by the tyranny of the congressional calendar and a presidential election season no one could have anticipated.

For the past decade, the Stoneleigh Foundation in Philadelphia, where I am pleased to be a member of the staff, has invested in a new model of juvenile justice reform, which adapts the models and adopts some of the lessons learned from many larger, more heavily resourced national foundations. Drawing from the Models for Change example, it is clear that reformers are most effective when they have an insider perspective, even when they are not themselves insiders; and from JDAI we learned the importance of having collaborative relationships with systems, and leadership steeped in (or drawn from) the local context.

Through our fellowships, the Stoneleigh Foundation invests in local leaders to create a cadre of system reformers embedded in the very systems they hope to change — be they public agencies, community-based organizations or advocacy groups working on seemingly intractable issues. The theory behind the Stoneleigh approach is that while the fiscal climate and political parties may change, creating and nurturing political will and policy know-how are the best paths to sustainable change.

Though the Stoneleigh Foundation’s approach is largely focused on creating change in the Philadelphia region, it has produced significant thought leadership in the field by seeding the work of exceptional individuals.

For example, our current group of Fellows includes Nicole Pittman, whose groundbreaking work to remove juveniles from sex-offender registries has achieved significant national attention; to former Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, whose school diversion program has produced enviable results in dismantling Philadelphia’s school-to-prison pipeline; and Naomi Goldstein, who is rigorously applying data to build and implement a developmentally appropriate approach to juvenile probation.

As the juvenile justice field as a whole — and not just the philanthropic community that supports it — confronts the new and uncertain reality of an incoming Trump presidency, we would do well to consider the next four to eight years an opportunity to further broaden our view of what it means to invest in reform.

Though it is too early to predict, we may not get the hoped-for commitment from the federal government. Despite the best efforts of national advocacy groups — which should continue unabated — the era of large-scale national reform may well be at an end.

But that doesn’t have to mean a halt, or even a slowing of the wave of reform. There are now unprecedented Left-Right-and-Center coalitions at the state and local levels all around the country that agree on the fundamentals: Our nation’s juvenile justice systems can and should be safe, fair and effective.

So let’s get back to work.

Marie Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice  and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

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