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Better models for juvenile justice

Juvenile justice is returning to its founding principles of protection, treatment, and rehabilitation, while embracing the equally important principles of accountability and public safety.

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Amid news stories that raise the specter of increasing juvenile crime, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that crime rates overall, particularly for violent crimes, are still near 30-year lows. The cries of alarm are reminiscent of those heard in the early 1990s, when a rise in violent juvenile crime and myths of superpredators helped transform a system that had been focused on individualized treatment and rehabilitation for nearly a century into one that was increasingly harsh and punitive.

The impact of these policies began to hit home. Thousands of adolescents, locked up during a critical period of development, returned to their communities without the skills or support to lead productive lives. A disproportionately large number of them were young minorities. The cost of "get tough" policies was measured not only in escalating budgets of prisons and detention centers and rising recidivism rates, but also in reduced public safety and the loss of human potential.

Over the past decade, groundbreaking research on adolescent development and on what works to help young people steer clear of crime has brought about more rational and effective policies. Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington were among the first to incorporate this new knowledge in reshaping our juvenile justice systems.

Now, in partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Models for Change initiative, we are working to further improve juvenile justice policy and practice across the country. However, these efforts could be at risk if public opinion becomes unnecessarily inflamed again.

Illinois launched the nation's first juvenile justice system more than a century ago. But, like many other states in the 1990s, it turned away from its historic rehabilitative mission, transferring a growing number of youths to adult court. The result was a sharp rise in recidivism rates and a growing racial disparity in incarceration rates.

Illinois is now renewing its commitment to juvenile justice by enacting a new law to separate the juvenile and adult systems to better protect young people. Redeploy Illinois, a model demonstration in four counties, provides incentives to place nonviolent juvenile offenders in community-based programs. As a result of this program, Illinois has reduced commitments of nonviolent juveniles by 44 percent at its pilot sites since 2004.

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