09/30/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

A First-Hand Look at Juvenile Justice Reform

When my colleagues and I arrived at New Beginnings, DC's youth development facility, I immediately noticed the lush quadrangle that connects the center's numerous buildings -- an image more closely associated with a college campus than a youth prison. A colorful mural painted by one of the residents lined the wall of the cafeteria, and 34 boys wearing polo-shirt uniforms were starting their second day of school. Teachers and students alike were abuzz with energy and excitement.

Ten years ago, this scene would have been quite different. In 2005, New Beginnings replaced Oak Hill, a facility that served simply as a holding area for 270 youth. The building itself was decrepit, with infestations of bugs and irregular heating and air conditioning, and unsecured housing units led to reports of sexual abuse and drug use. Youth advocates refer to juveniles' stays at Oak Hill as "dead time," where they were pulled out of their family and schools and came out worse than when they entered. Liz Ryan, a juvenile justice reformer who joined us on our visit to New Beginnings last month, helped to shut down Oak Hill.

New Beginnings clearly departs from the Oak Hill model. Institution staff members have high expectations for the detained youth, which is evident in how they encourage them to take on new responsibilities in order to grow as leaders -- and in how they call the youth "scholars." Its programs include trauma-based counseling, vocational training for locksmithing and barbering, and a fatherhood discussion group that encourages youth to take responsibility for their children once they leave the institution. The center prepares the youth to reintegrate as contributing members of society and has therefore contributed to DC's decreased recidivism rates.

Juvenile justice reform is an issue that doesn't get much attention from funders, but it has nonetheless gained momentum in recent years. The Public Welfare Foundation, which has a grant-making focus in juvenile justice and organized our New Beginnings site visit, is a key funder in this space. Among other efforts, leaders in the field are persuading state governments to close juvenile prisons that merely house delinquent youth as a form of punishment and are instead aiming to direct funds to new institutions that focus on rehabilitation, investments in high-risk communities, and preventative support such as after-school programs. As a result, states are experiencing lower juvenile recidivism rates, which translate into savings for the state and increased public safety.

What makes juvenile justice reform so compelling is that it touches on education, public safety, and economic and racial equality, and my colleagues and I have witnessed its promising effects on both individual youth and the social sector at large. Keeping youth in their community and providing support for them within the context of their home and family allows for a more seamless educational experience, as well as greater individualized services and cultural sensitivity. Not only is it cheaper to keep youth out of prison, but it also helps bring down the overwhelming rates of incarcerated youth of color, which is currently at 68 percent. Considering that the vast majority of delinquent youth's offenses are non-violent, juvenile prisons should be a last resort, not the default.

I was introduced to the cause by Scott Budnick, who leads the Anti-Recidivism Coalition in Los Angeles, an entrepreneurial group that has leveraged powerful relationships to rack up impressive wins in the California statehouse. Because this issue has been under the radar for so long, there is a lot of opportunity for additional advocacy and organizing efforts, and funders can have a tremendous impact by supporting those efforts. Improving the life trajectory of at-risk youth is a crucial element to creating safer cities and stronger communities, and I look forward to seeing the movement's continued progress.

Foundation program officers and others who want to learn more should take a look at Notorious to Notable: The Crucial Role of the Philanthropic Community in Transforming the Juvenile Justice System in Washington, DC.