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Collaboration for Reform

As the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative began to get underway in four core states, participants in the Initiative and Foundation leadership recognized a significant need: to create concentrated efforts to address some of the shared key challenges to reform. So in 2007, an additional investment of resources was made to create what came to be known as “Action Networks” – multi state groups of juvenile justice and other child serving system leaders that sought to make clear and significant progress addressing issues around mental health; disproportionate minority contact; and juvenile indigent defense. 

This first-of-its-kind national effort worked quickly and collaboratively on these intransigent issues and generated impressive results. As the Action Networks began to wrap up their efforts, Network members and the coordinating entities – the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, and the National Juvenile Defenders Center – realized that a great deal could be learned from each other’s experiences. And so with Foundation support, a Cross Network meeting was held in May 2011, with about 100 attendees, including representatives from 16 state delegations. The twin goals of the meeting were first, for each Action Network to hear about the specific changes and reforms that were developed in each subject area; and second, to share both with each other and with the Foundation their observations about the Action Network process itself. 

“We had ambitious goals, but modest resources,” said Laurie Garduque, Program Director, Justice Reform at the Foundation in the opening session of the Spring convening. “We built a leadership cadre and critical mass of activity to draw attention to justice reform. In my mind, the Action Networks represent some of the best Models for Change work to date. We were doing something different that has really made a difference for kids.”

Accommodating diversity in goals and methods.

One of the key strategies that led to the success of the Action Networks was allowing each Network to determine both what issues they would tackle and how they would do their work using a framework called “strategic innovation groups” – nicknamed SIGs – that would break down the broader issue area into a few manageable topics that could become the focus for efforts.  While SIGs had been used in other disciplines, they had never been tried in juvenile justice, or on such a large scale. The following represent each network’s SIG issues: 

  • Mental Health: Front End Diversion; Workforce Development; Family Involvement
  • Disproportionate Minority Contact: Data Practices; Language, Programs, Culture and Community; Pre- and Post-Adjudication Strategies
  • Juvenile Indigent Defense: Providing Meaningful Access to Counsel; Creation of State-Based Resources

Joe Cocozza, Director of the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice which coordinated the cross-network meeting, said, “the opportunity given the Networks by the Foundation was both brave and innovative. Using the SIGs, we were able to identify targets that were both meaningful and achievable across the states in each Network. Because of the buy-in this created, we were able to develop new models and tools that can be adapted and used by juvenile justice practitioners across the country in the years ahead.”

Building Momentum for Reform.

In addition to highlighting the achievements of the Action Networks and the model itself, the Cross-Action Network Meeting also allowed participants the opportunity to debate some of the most pressing concerns in the field. These included the application of evidence-based practices for youth in communities of color (covered in an earlier edition of this newsletter); the intersection of mental health screening and protection of rights in juvenile defense; and successful ways to partner with community providers to build and enhance partnerships and develop effective programs. 

The importance of succeeding at this work was highlighted by the keynote luncheon address by Gladys Carrion, Commissioner of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.  She spoke of the unacceptable conditions and practices of secure juvenile facilities and her efforts to close correctional facilities across the state. Reducing the use of incarceration depends on the availability of programs, policies and procedures such as those developed in the Action Networks and highlighted during the meeting. As Garduque added in closing, “the legacy of these Networks will continue, and I urge you to keep this momentum going in your states, and keep pushing the field forward.”

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