What's New in MacArthur's Long Battle to Reform Juvenile Justice?

The MacArthur Foundation thinks that juveniles should be exempt from solitary confinement and sex offender registry requirements.

That’s according to a recent report, “Because Kids are Different: Five Opportunities for Reforming the Juvenile Justice System,” published by the foundation's ambitious “Models for Change” juvenile justice reform effort. Other recommendations are to restrict the prosecution of juveniles in the adult criminal justice system and make juvenile records more confidential.

The rationale behind these recommendations is that child and adolescent brains aren’t developed enough to warrant the same criminal treatment as adults, as they are more susceptible to risk-taking behavior, peer pressure, and immediate gratification (as any parent of a teenager knows all too well!). MacArthur sees U.S. treatment of juvenile offenders as way too focused on punishment and incarceration, including for even minor offenses.

We might put things another way: It's downright barbaric how America treats kids who get into trouble. 

The report stated, “Too few juvenile justice systems use approaches that teach youth about the consequences of their wrongdoing in a holistic way, or give youth opportunities to restore damage they have caused, when feasible, and the tools to learn from their mistakes and make better choices in the future.”

Instead, kids who get embroiled in these systems often end up even more psychologically damaged, and in ways that can end tragically. 

MacArthur’s support for juvenile justice reform is nothing new. It's been on this case since the 1990s, when the tough new laws targeting juvenile offenders were passed in a majority of U.S. states. These days, MacArthur mainly works on this issue through its Models for Change initiative, which supports reform efforts in 35 states across the country. MacArthur’s overarching position is that the law must have a better understanding of the scientific research on child and adolescent development to make good decisions in in juvenile cases.

MacArthur developed Models for Change with back in 2003 with a core focus on Illinois, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Washington. Since that time, MacArthur has pumped $100 million into work advocating reform efforts. In fact, there are clearly better ways to handle juvenile offenders, and MacArthur has been a leader in getting out the word about approaches that work. 

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is another top funder working the juvenile justice reform beat, as we reported recently, and both funders are making headway with this work lately as the winds have shifted on criminal justice issues writ large. 

Related - After Two Decades of Fighting Youth Incarceration, Has Casey's Moment Arrived?

Unfortunately for nonprofits, the MacArthur Foundation is no longer accepting unsolicited proposals for juvenile justice reform grants. However, given how deeply entrenched MacArthur is in this issue, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a relevant funding opportunity open up as a “special area of interest” in the near future.