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W hen The Annie E. Casey Foundation launched its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative 15 years ago, it did so in a hostile environment. The US was in the midst of turning back the clock on juvenile justice policy as a chorus of voices demanded “adult time for adult crime”.

The result was a sharp spike in the number of children held in secure detention and processed through adult courts.

But over the years, JDAI sites have shown that it is possible to reduce reliance on detention without compromising public safety.

Bart Lubow, director of programmes for high-risk youth at the Casey Foundation, says the results dispel “one of the system’s great myths – that locking up significantly fewer youth would unleash a juvenile crime wave”.

The turnround has not taken place in a vacuum: the Casey Foundation is among a small group of philanthropic foundations, non-profit organisations, and visionaries dedicated to juvenile justice reform.

In recent years they have notched up a string of successes: the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has appointed a 25-member “Blueprint Commission” to develop a plan to reform the state’s juvenile justice system; in May the Connecticut State Senate passed a bill moving 16- and 17-year-old offenders out of the adult courts and back into the juvenile justice system; and in 2005 the Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders.

Across the country, states are moving away from punitive policies shaped in the 1990s by a “get tough” approach to crime, “zero tolerance” school discipline policies, and myths of juvenile “superpredators”.

The goal is to lower the number of children in prison without jeopardising public safety. It is also to bring rehabilitation practises more in line with research showing stark differences between teenage and adult brains as well as research showing that children who are processed through adult courts and who do time in adult jails fare worse, and commit more violent crime, than those handled in juvenile courts.

One state held up as a pioneer is Missouri. Mark Steward, former director of the division of youth services, is credited with developing what is now nationally recognised as the “Missouri model”, a decentralised approach that places children in small, home-like settings with intense therapy.

With help from philanthropic foundations, it is starting to become a model for use in other states.

In this era of “results-oriented”, “strategic” philanthropy where the buzz is all about “leveraging” grant dollars, several foundations have shown that it is possible to look beyond short-term fixes and make investments that change the system and its institutions for long-term results.

“The trend in philanthropy is to look for ways to have the biggest impact with your grant dollars. We were lucky enough to recognise that juvenile justice was an area where there was very little private funding going in, and our small investment would make a really big difference,” says Emily Tow Jackson, executive director of The Tow Foundation, which focuses on programmes that work with children and families who are enmeshed in Connecticut’s juvenile justice system.

But juvenile justice remains on the fringes of giving – in terms of the number of foundations involved and the amount of grant dollars.

One of the leading funders is The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, whose “Models for Change” programme has targeted investments in four key states: Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington. In August, the four governors wrote an article in the Christian Science Monitor championing their efforts. “Change under way in our states and others appears to be the beginning of a new wave of reform,” they said. “We hope that other states will join us.”

While the US is home to some 71,000 private grant-making foundations, the burden of systemic reform rests on a few.

“I can count the number of national foundations on one hand,” says Laurie Garduque, director for research in the programme on human and community development at the MacArthur Foundation. One encouraging sign, however, is that the past few years has seen growing interest from about a dozen local or regional funders.

As for funding, foundation giving for criminal justice – which includes juvenile justice – was $25m in 2005, or 11.6 per cent of the $214m that foundations awarded for the category “Crime, Justice, and Legal Services”, according to Foundation Center.

Gwen Foster, senior programme officer at The California Endowment, which supports state reform efforts, says juvenile justice is an orphan in philanthropy, in part for some of the same reasons mental illness has been. “There is a lot of stigma around delinquent kids and, frankly, because children of colour are disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system, that also can play a role in people’s overall thinking about the issue,” she says. “Like mental illness, delinquent behaviour is an area that is looked at as difficult to solve.”

Robert Crane, president of the JEHT Foundation, which focuses on issues of justice and equality and is a leading giver for juvenile justice reform, says many foundations do not want to be involved in the “political messiness” of the work.

“One of the reasons why more foundations don’t work in this area is that, in general, it is extremely difficult. On one hand it involves dealing with, by and large, disenfranchised populations and on the other there is often a lot of political controversy within states on how to deal with these populations,” he says. “There are a lot of other, less controversial issues for foundations to focus on.”

But ignoring juvenile justice reform is short sighted.

For Joe Clark, president of the Eckerd Family Foundation, which is helping support Florida’s Blueprint Commission, reform represents a virtuous cycle.

“We need to shift the way people think about the needs of young people – they are kids still and when we treat them like adults we shouldn’t be surprised if we create the behaviours we are trying to end,” he says.

If foundations that work with disadvantaged youth do not include juvenile justice reform, they risk creating a “a pipeline” to adult prisons, he adds. “From a dollars and cents perspective it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend money on the other issues if you are not addressing juvenile justice, because your efforts will go to naught.”

Some of those “other issues” include youth development, education and after-school programmes, foster care, and public health.

One area where there is considerable overlap is mental health. According to one report, up to 75 per cent of juvenile justice-involved youth have some mental, emotional, or behavioural health problem and at least 20 per cent of these are serious mental disorders.

The California Endowment’s “Healthy Returns Initiative” is focused on improving mental health services in the juvenile justice system. “The goal is to increase the capability of the probation departments and other services to work together to make sure young people get the services they need while they are in detention and then when they go back to the community,” says Foster.

Another programme area that offers cross-over opportunities is substance abuse. For the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest healthcare philanthropy, this was its entry point into juvenile justice reform. In 2002 it launched “Reclaiming Futures” to improve outcomes for drug-involved youth in the juvenile justice system. The foundation implemented and tested the model and the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Substance Abuse Treatment are helping spread the model to new communities.

Still, the reality is that more than 100,000 teenagers are held in custody every day at costs ranging from $100 to more than $300 a day, according to a 2005 report by the Youth Transition Funders Group entitled “A Blueprint for Juvenile Justice Reform”. Few of them are serious offenders and most are charged with non-violent property or drug crimes. Moreover, about two-thirds are youth of colour.

For children who have a brush with the law, their troubles with the legal system often start right after their arrest. Many young people, especially low-income and minority children, don’t have access to well-trained and well-resourced lawyers – and many receive no counsel at all. The Open Society Institute is looking to change that.

“Kids are one of the most vulnerable parts of our society and a bellwether of how well a society lives up to human rights standards,” says Nancy Chang, a programme officer for the OSI’s US Justice Fund. “Changes are happening and the infusion of more money absolutely will make a difference. There are some very dedicated funders who have been at this issue but there is room for an infusion of funding. This is a moment when a small amount of money can result in tremendous change.”

The stakes could not be higher. As author James Baldwin once said: “These are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for whatever they become.”

This is the second in an occasional series of articles that will examine orphans of

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