By Saba Long
The MacArthur Foundation announced a new initiative aimed at furthering local and national juvenile justice reform at the National Council of State Legislators’ annual conference meeting in Atlanta last week.
Its Models for Change: Resource Center Partnership, funded in part by an additional $15 million investment from the foundation, will provide programmers and policy makers support for operation and policy matters involving indigent defense, mental health, welfare and diversion programs for lesser offenders.
The four resource center partners are the National Center for Mental Health and Justice, the National Juvenile Justice Defender Center, the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps and the Vera Institute of Justice.
This comprehensive approach aims to address the policy and public safety impact of adjudicating young people – as young people rather than adults. Pointing to psychology tests such as the Iowa Gambling Task, researchers and programmers argue that while adolescents know right from wrong, they are more likely to make impulse decisions due to ongoing brain development.
In a recent NCSL publication, Emory University physiatrist Peter Ash stated it is unlikely for someone to commit a violent crime if they haven’t already done so by age 19. Additionally, full cognitive development and impulse control is not typically reached until age 25.
Across the country, policy makers are implementing a number of changes to their juvenile justice codes including increasing the age a youth can be tried as an adult and addressing early signs of mental health issues. Given his leadership in rewriting the Georgia’s juvenile justice code, State Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) was touted as a subject matter expert for other elected officials attending the conference.
According to the NCSL, research shows that moving 16 and 17 years out of the adult justice system “will return about $3 in benefit for every $1 in costs.” In Georgia the maximum age for a juvenile is 16 – an opportunity for further reform should be considered on this front.
To be sure, Georgia received high praise from MacArthur Foundation officials and other conference attendees. The foundation’s director for juvenile justice, Dr. Laurie Garduque noted she considers Georgia a “shining example of a broad based coalition” and a bellwether state for national juvenile justice reform.
However, in Georgia and across the country, implementation of these reforms needs sustained attention.