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Juvenile Law Center Strives for Justice Reform

Dec 28, 2009, Robert Schwartz, The Legal Intelligencer

The Juvenile Law Center's highly publicized work on behalf of thousands of Luzerne County teens is of obvious import. It also has its ironies.

Since 2004, the Juvenile Law Center has been the "lead entity" in a MacArthur Foundation juvenile justice reform initiative in the commonwealth. As the first step in implementing its initiative, known as Models for Change, MacArthur selected Pennsylvania because our juvenile justice system was one of the best in the country. The foundation felt that its investments — roughly $10 million over five years — could accelerate the state's pace of reform toward a fair, effective, rational and developmentally appropriate juvenile justice system.

About five years ago, the foundation and the Juvenile Law Center — after meetings with Pennsylvania stakeholders and leaders of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Committee, or JJDPC, which distributes federal justice dollars under the aegis of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency — decided to focus on three areas.

These three areas, which the foundation calls targeted areas of improvement, are aftercare (re-entry); disproportionate minority contact; and the mental health needs of youths who come into contact with the justice system. The Juvenile Law Center has advised the foundation on grant-making, linked the foundation's funding to that of the JJDPC and helped create state-level policies that will enable counties to do a better job of diverting youths from the justice system, serving them better when they are in it and facilitating their return to home and community after being in residential placements.

MacArthur and the JJDPC reinforced each other's grant-making, as each contributed millions of dollars to innovative reforms. In many counties, Pennsylvania has made enormous strides toward creating a model juvenile justice system.

At Gov. Edward G. Rendell's direction, the Juvenile Law Center five years ago convened a state-level policy group that produced a "Joint Policy Statement on Aftercare." This landmark document committed the state to achieving 17 concrete goals relating to aftercare, including multi-agency collaboration, judicial oversight hearings, school reintegration and a variety of other issues.

To implement the policy statement, MacArthur supported re-entry reform in Philadelphia — led by Philadelphia Family Court and the Department of Human Services — while the PCCD funded innovations in four other counties. The foundation and the PCCD made grants to the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission and the Pennsylvania Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers, whose staff worked with every Pennsylvania county to gain a commitment to aftercare reform. (Luzerne County in December became the last county to sign on to aftercare reform.)

MacArthur made a significant grant to the Education Law Center, which created a toolkit for probation officers who were responsible for getting youths back into school after they left residential care. The ELC toolkit has been an extraordinary success, turning juvenile probation officers into education advocates.

The Juvenile Law Center staff has participated on the Mental Health/Juvenile Justice Workgroup, a task force of high-level representatives of the state's juvenile justice, mental health, child welfare, substance abuse treatment and education systems that hammered out the "Mental Health/Juvenile Justice Joint Policy Statement." The statement committed Pennsylvania to creating a "comprehensive model system" for identifying, diverting and treating court-involved youths with behavioral health needs.

As a result of the policy statement, the Juvenile Law Center worked with other stakeholders to increase youths' access to mental health services. In 2008, the General Assembly passed a law that limited the uses of statements made by youths who were undergoing court-ordered mental health screening and evaluations. Candor between mental health professionals and youths can only occur if youths have protections against self-incrimination that the new law provides.

In addition to the mental health policy level work, MacArthur invested in three county demonstration sites — in Allegheny, Erie and in Chester counties — all of which have developed multi-system collaborations and policy and practice changes designed to facilitate early identification of youths with behavioral health issues, appropriate diversion when possible and evidence-based treatment in the community.

MacArthur's investment in addressing Disproportionate Minority Contact, in partnership with the JJDPC's DMC Subcommittee, has produced breathtaking results in Berks and Philadelphia counties.

In Berks County, activities overseen by a large and diverse local governing committee convened by Judge Arthur Grim — also now serving as special master to address the Juvenile Law Center's petition for relief in the Luzerne County case — have resulted in a number of concrete gains. These include adoption of a detention screening tool, use of an evening reporting center as an alternative to secure detention, Spanish language accommodation and introduction of a YouthBuild program. The result is a huge reduction in the secure detention of Latino youths, no increase in crime, and savings of millions of dollars.

In Philadelphia, led by the Defender Association's Bob Listenbee and Deputy District Attorney George Mosee, investments by MacArthur and JJDPC have supported a curriculum that is designed to change the way new police recruits and minority youths perceive and interact with one another. The curriculum is unique in the country, and features panel presentations from police and minority youths, guided discussion sessions and role-playing involving common confrontation scenarios.

These are just examples of a larger reform effort that the Juvenile Law Center has engaged in across Pennsylvania. The complete story is at In 2010, the Juvenile Law Center will be working with Pennsylvania stakeholders to solidify the gains of Models for Change, while continuing our federal court litigation over the Luzerne scandal. We will also be proposing broad-based reforms to the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice. It is a challenging, exciting time for Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system.

Bob Schwartz co-founded the Juvenile Law Center and has been its executive director since 1975

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Models for Change is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, website operated by Justice Policy Institute.