OP-ED: Models for Change — A Decade of Advancing Juvenile Justice

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marcschindler1-fullWhen I left the Youth Law Center in 2005 to take a position with the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DC’s juvenile corrections agency), the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative was just getting under way.  I remember the early optimism and challenges of the initiative, and watched from afar as my colleagues from around the country worked to advance reforms based on best practices and the impressive research base that the Foundation had supported prior to the launch of Models for Change.

Having recently joined the Justice Policy Institute, one of the early and longstanding participants in Models for Change, I have now had the opportunity to learn more about the impact of the initiative over the past decade.  The recent Models for Change Cross Action Network meeting that was held last month in Washington, D.C., provided excellent examples of impactful work across the initiative.  The gathering, the third of its kind, brought together participants from all three action networks working across states on mental health, disproportionate minority contact and indigent defense. Representatives from other MacArthur grantees and invited guests from the field also participated.

Highlights of the meeting included presentations from the newly created resource centers and strategic allies that are advancing reforms to reduce disproportionate minority contact and a system grounded in adolescent development.

Real progress is being made. More youth with mental health needs are being diverted to public health systems better designed to meet their needs, fewer youth are being incarcerated nationwide and more attorneys are providing zealous defense on behalf of youth.

Just listen to what some of these change agents had to say about Models for Change:

  • “We went further with our reforms than we would have otherwise, and we took on issues that we wouldn’t have if we weren’t part of the network. It was helpful to be pushed, and to have deadlines and to know that we were not in it alone. Participating in the network has brought our systems forward exponentially in understanding our children.” From a stakeholder working to meet the mental health needs of youth without unnecessary juvenile justice system involvement.
  • “Our work supported by the network and its funding was the catalyst resulting in creation of a statewide juvenile defender department ... Information shared from our colleagues in Florida resulted in ending shackling in our state.” A defender who is working to develop meaningful access to legal counsel for all youth.
  • “Being part of the network has allowed us to leverage resources and create critical shared beliefs across systems. Sharing info across the network has been empowering and confirmed we are on the right track. Our increased data capacity will lead to sustainability.” From a system stakeholder who is using data-driven strategies to reduce ethnic and racial disparities and promote a fairer juvenile justice system.

What these accounts say to me: Models for Change is serving as a key catalyst for change in the juvenile justice field around these critical issues, and these change agents will be working with and relying on each other for years to come.

Marc A. Schindler is the Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute, and former general counsel and interim director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, D.C.

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