Project Profile

Juvenile Justice Reform

Juvenile Justice Reform

June 9, 2019

The John T. Gorman Foundation works with numerous partners to expand community-based alternatives within the juvenile justice system, strengthen legal advocacy for youth, and raise public awareness of issues facing Maine’s vulnerable youth

For vulnerable youth, adolescent decisions come with adult-size consequences

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is rocky for anyone who goes through it. Even with all the appropriate supports—relationships with supportive adults, financial assistance, mentors and social capital—it is easy to make mistakes and bad decisions. (After all, current science finds that our brains don’t fully develop until at least age 25, on average.) But with luck and the resources listed above, young adults can learn from their mistakes without having the rest of their lives altered.

Unfortunately, many aren’t that lucky. Too many of our youth lack those important supports and may also have factors working against them—family instability or conflict, poverty, past trauma, and mental health issues among them. With little room for error, the choices these kids make can have consequences that stretch long into adulthood.

This is especially true for those in the juvenile justice system. Youth incarceration brings with it lost connections to family and community, a criminal record that seriously handicaps opportunities for future success, and increased chances for reoffending.

Helping vulnerable older youth successfully transition to adulthood is a priority for the John T. Gorman Foundation—including the hundreds of Maine youth involved in the juvenile justice system. By investing in community-based programs, training legal professionals in best practices, and working directly with the Maine Department of Corrections, our work has enabled partners to divert youth from the juvenile justice system successfully and continues to promote informed changes within the system itself.

Emerging understanding of adolescent brain development informs new approaches to juvenile justice

The first step in the Foundation’s work was gaining a better understanding of what is happening in Maine for youth who are involved in or at risk of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.

To this end, the Foundation commissioned a landscape assessment of the programs, practices, strategies, and related activities of Maine’s juvenile justice field. In addition, we also researched national juvenile justice reform trends, which have been informed by a growing body of research demonstrating that the adolescent brain is under development until the mid-20s or even later.

With this information, the Foundation identified three areas where its investment could have the greatest impact:

  1. Reducing youth contact with the justice system
  2. Addressing the needs of system-involved youth
  3. Helping youth transition successfully out of the system and back into their communities

To advance these goals, the Foundation has worked with partners to expand community-based alternatives to secure confinement, strengthen legal assistance for youth and their families, and raise awareness of the issues facing Maine’s most vulnerable youth.

Strengthening community-based programming, an effective alternative to incarceration

We know from national research that recidivism rates for youth who are diverted from the juvenile justice system to community-based programming are significantly lower than for those who are committed to secure confinement or placed under state supervision (probation). Data from the Maine Department of Corrections shows this to hold true for Maine as well. From 2012-2014, the average one-year recidivism rate was 42% for committed youth and 35% for those under probation. For youth diverted to community-based programs, however, the rate was only 7%.

Research also shows that providing aftercare—services for youth returning to their communities after spending time in secure confinement—can reduce the likelihood of probation violations.

Maine’s Department of Corrections has done a good job diverting more youth in recent years; however, many communities lack diversion programs and/or aftercare services. Accordingly, one of the Foundation’s first juvenile justice investments helped launch, in partnership with the Maine Department of Corrections, a community-based reporting center at Tree Street Youth in Lewiston designed as an alternative to incarceration or state supervision.

Called the Sequoia Program, the Reporting Center serves young men who are involved in the juvenile justice system already or are at high risk of becoming so. Participants work toward a set of goals with the aid of mentoring, community service opportunities, tutoring, and skills development. Early outcomes showed that the positive relationships, community connections, and guidance made a positive impact on the participants. In the first 18 months of its operation, the average number of juvenile arrests decreased by 35 percent, and the Sequoia participants had increased enrollment and attendance in school.

We believe this model could be replicated in other places with similar success. The Foundation is currently supporting research to identify a roadmap for how other Maine communities can create community-based programming to provide much-needed prevention, diversion and aftercare services.

Enhancing legal advocacy to improve youth outcomes

National research also identified better legal advocacy as a critical need. If attorneys know more about the legal avenues available, their young clients stand a better chance of avoiding secure confinement, instead being placed in a program that could yield more positive outcomes.

To that end, the Foundation has made several investments focused on increasing juvenile defenders’ knowledge of issues unique to the juvenile justice system, including funding to help the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic develop and distribute a Juvenile Defender Appellate Handbook.

Another legal concern is how juvenile records can often undermine the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system. These records can cause many difficulties that follow youth into adulthood as they try to obtain employment and housing or serve in the military.

With a Foundation grant, the USM Muskie School of Public Service looked at this issue in depth in Maine. It identified widespread misunderstandings and inconsistencies around the practice of sealing juvenile records, as well as potential improvements in the ways these records could be handled, accessed, and safeguarded.

Raising awareness of issues facing older youth

In addition to these targeted juvenile justice investments, the Foundation has also focused on increasing public awareness of issues facing vulnerable older youth overall.

In 2016, we held a public forum that explored what recent adolescent brain development research means for policymakers and stakeholders serving system-involved youth and youth experiencing homelessness. The Foundation later released an older youth brief entitled “From Adolescence to Adulthood: A blueprint for helping Maine’s youth succeed,” which includes four recommendations based on lessons learned from a number of our older youth grants. At the same time, the Foundation has provided a grant to Maine Public to increase reporting on older youth issues.

Creating better outcomes for these vulnerable youth—including those confronting the juvenile justice system—benefits us all. Helping them through their unique challenges now pays off in the contributions they will make as adults to the workforce, community and their families later on. Giving up on them is simply not an option. That is why John T. Gorman Foundation remains committed to working alongside our partners to help these kids achieve their true potential.


Related Partners

Findings/Impact

Expanding Community-Based Alternatives to State Confinement and Supervision

  • 71 youth involved or at-risk of being involved in juvenile justice system were diverted to a Lewiston community-based Reporting Center funded by the John T. Gorman Foundation
  • During the first 18 months of the Reporting Center’s operation, juvenile arrests in Lewiston decreased by 35%.

Strengthening Legal Advocacy and Decision Making

  • 147 Maine attorneys from across the state attended juvenile justice continuing legal education trainings and 127 of those are Maine Criminal Indigent Legal Services rostered attorneys
  • 125 defense attorneys received “A Guide to Juvenile Appellate Practice in Maine,” which includes standard template pleadings for use by juvenile law practitioners
  • 750 copies of “Unsealed Fate: The Unintended Consequences of Inadequate Safeguarding of Juvenile Records in Maine” were distributed and 11 presentations were given on the findings
  • 5,000 copies of a newly created informational brochure, “Know the Facts: What it Means to Have a Juvenile Record in Maine” were distributed. Recipients included the Maine DOC, court personnel, State Police, Maine Prosecutors Association and additional juvenile justice stakeholders
  • 100 juvenile justice stakeholders participated in a daylong summit focused on community-based alternatives to confinement
  • Expert testimony was provided to legislative and judicial branch committees on community-based alternatives to incarceration, juvenile record confidentiality, and broader justice system reforms

Relevant Strategies

Relevant Populations

  • Older Youth

Locations by County

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