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Making Impactful Juvenile Justice Reform: Lessons from Recent State Efforts

scales of justice

This Abell Report examines recent efforts at reforming the juvenile justice systems in various states and finds key lessons for Maryland. 

May 2019

For much of the 20th century, the American justice system treated youth differently from adults, emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment. But beginning in the 1980s, state and federal legislators made a series of changes that eliminated many of these distinctions and started treating juvenile offenders more punitively.

In most jurisdictions today, when young people break the rules, they are often forced into a criminal-legal system that has few tools to assess their needs or risk of reoffending, been too quick to remove them from their homes, and done remarkably little to measure the outcomes and the costs of this approach. This has left states operating costly juvenile justice systems that are inefficient at best. And, at worst, they are counterproductive.

In Maryland, for example, more than half of new commitments for out-of-home placements are for misdemeanors or violations of probation — less serious offenses that could likely be better addressed with a less intensive response.

In this Abell Report, author Ted Alcorn examines recent efforts at reforming the juvenile justice systems in various states and finds key lessons for Maryland. Alcorn notes that there is a roadmap to successful reform:

  1. Bring the right parties to the table so that all stakeholders are engaged and invested in the outcome.
  2. Learn from data from across agencies and take a hard look at the existing system.
  3. Craft meaningful reforms based in the data that match your state’s circumstances, typically reducing out-of-home placement and increasing investment in community-based services.
  4. Make lasting change by measuring outcomes and creating a mechanism for oversight.

In reconsidering Maryland’s existing juvenile justice system, there is much to be gained by examining past mistakes and recent successes from other states.

Read the full report