The Crucial Role of Foundations in D.C. Juvenile Justice Reform

Earlier this month, national and local foundations in the U.S., including the Open Society Foundations, met to discuss the future of juvenile justice in the District of Columbia and the findings of a new report, Notorious to Notable. The report shows how a collaborative effort between local D.C. foundations and national funders supported the positive transformation of the District’s juvenile justice agency by closing a notorious juvenile prison for court-involved youth and redirecting resources to community-based alternatives to incarceration. As a result of the effort, Harvard University's Kennedy School named the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services among the Top 50 Programs in its 2008 Innovations in American Government Awards competition.

The report chronicles the story with a detailed timeline of how the city in 2009 closed the Oak Hill Youth Center, a juvenile prison opened in 1967, that became the subject of a class action lawsuit, "Jerry M." over inhumane conditions of confinement. Foundations supported the creation of a new policy consensus, through the establishment of a Blue Ribbon Commission to reverse the District's over-reliance on incarceration and use of the notorious Oak Hill to warehouse over 300 youth on any given day.

With foundation support over a ten-year span, the District was able to realize the following accomplishments:

  • closure of the notorious Oak Hill Youth Center, D.C.’s juvenile prison;
  • replacement of Oak Hill with a modern, award-winning facility, New Beginnings Youth Development Center, geared towards youth rehabilitation and development with a nationally acclaimed educational program, the Maya Angelou Academy;
  • dramatic reduction in the over-reliance on unnecessary incarceration in the District; and
  • creation of a network of community-based alternatives to incarceration.

To build momentum towards these major accomplishments, foundations initiated major strategies such as engaging funders, advocacy, strategic investments in programs, capacity building, and technical assistance. The report highlights many national and local foundations and specific strategies they supported. Among the "lessons learned" in the report: foundations achieved success using a collective, coordinated and aligned strategy, and foundation support for advocacy was a crucial component.

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