Momentum for Juvenile Justice Reform: 40 Years, 40 Stories

MacArthur Foundation •

As you look back 20 years, why was the need for juvenile justice reform so critical?
ML: Twenty years ago, the United States was in the grip of the “superpredator” myth that caused our juvenile justice system to take a hard-right turn toward punishment and retribution and away from treatment and rehabilitation of young offenders. The shift in emphasis was dramatic, with over 200,000 children tried as adults every year and then subject to all of the criminal sanctions the justice system meted out to adults — including, in some states, the death penalty and life without parole sentences. By the end of the 1990s, the myth began unraveling: crime was steadily declining and the purported research behind the superpredator threat was expressly disavowed. We began to recognize the policy mistakes of the ‘90s and understood that we risked losing an entire generation of youth — especially youth of color — to the hopelessness of long or interminable prison sentences unless we re-examined these flawed choices.

In what ways can the juvenile justice system be ineffective or unfair to youth and to communities?
ML: The juvenile justice system has never been particularly effective at engaging the children, families, or communities that it impacts. Historically, the system operated behind closed doors, offering youth confidentiality but sacrificing transparency and accountability. Children were not accorded a right to counsel until nearly 70 years after the first juvenile court opened its doors, yet this constitutional right can still be elusive in courtrooms around the country. And while recent reforms have shrunk the carceral footprint of the juvenile justice system by approximately 50 percent, nearly 50,000 children are still incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities every day, despite mounting research that confinement, especially secure confinement, produces only minimal returns toward reducing re-offending.

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