A Foundation Works To Engage Journalists in Juvenile Justice Reform

Reporters generally stink at math, yet they love numbers. The bigger the number, the more compelling the story becomes.

Here's a number that scribes will hear at a juvenile-justice conference this week, sponsored by the Tow Foundation: It costs up to $90,000 to jail a youth for a year, and the re-offender rate is higher compared to cheaper intervention programs that stress staying in school and out of lockup.

The Tow Foundation, for a third year, is backing outreach to members of the media. Twenty-six journalists were handpicked to attend the “Children and the Law” symposium June 13-14 in New York City. The symposium kicks of a year-long fellowship program for the purpose of “strengthening reporting on juvenile justice during the election year.”

Journalists can be mule-headed and fiercely independent, and they're known to resist any suggestion about story coverage. But the Center on Media, Crime and Justice says that it's had success working with journalists in the fellowship program and that some participants have produced excellent print and broadcast reports about juvenile justice reform. A clear benefit—besides free meals—for the reporters and writers in attendance is that the subject-matter experts presenting at the two-day event at John Jay University can become good sources.

The Tow Foundation's approach here is a low-cost way to draw more attention to the issue of juvenile justice and what's working to improve current systems. Advocates of reform prefer community-based intervention—that may include help staying in school and getting off drugs and alcohol—over incarceration for troubled youths. Judges and probation officers say the triggers for juvenile delinquency aren't always the kid's fault. Domestic violence, homelessness, anger and learning disabilities are just a few. Girls arrested for prostitution, for example, are often victims themselves, juvenile-justice advocates say.

Funders and nonprofits have been making these kinds of points forever, but lately have felt a new optimism on juvenile justice reform, as the pendulum of public and elite opinion has swung away from more punitive approaches to crime and punishment.  

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In other words, now is a good moment to help more journalists get on top of the juvenile justice issue. The director of the Center of Media, Crime and Justice, Stephen Handelman, says “our program connects reporters with the experts in the field so that they can inform the public of the choices ahead.” Adding urgency to this week's New York City symposium is the presidential election, “a critical time for journalists to explore and publish excellent investigative work on the progress—or lack of it—of juvenile justice reforms." Federal block grants pay for many of the juvenile-justice programs, which journalists will hear about as John Jay Center fellows. There are concerns that Congress may reduce some of its funding next year.  

The Tow Foundation centers its grantmaking on justice reform for adult and youth, as well as medical research, higher education, and support for cultural institutions. The justice work mainly focuses in Connecticut and New York, with some support also going for national advocacy efforts. Tow is a big believer in programs that steer minors in trouble into community-based programs, mentoring, counseling and keeping them out of jail pending court hearings whenever possible. It opposes such harsh practices as juvenile life without parole, putting youth in adult prison systems, and "zero tolerance" school discipline practices. (See more on its justice work here.) 

Juvenile justice reform is a funding space that's not nearly as crowded as youth at-risk programs, but it probably should be because troubled kids in the court system have fallen already through the cracks. Their rock bottom could be the floor of an adult prison someday.