On September 5, 2014, Vera Institute of Justice kicked off a series of educational briefings on Capitol Hill with a discussion titled, “The State of Juvenile Justice: A National Conversation About Research, Results & Reform.”

The briefing, moderated by Christine Leonard, Director of the Vera’s DC office, focused on the correlation between adolescent brain development and the increasing amount of youth who enter the juvenile justice system. The featured experts in the field of juvenile justice and youth brain development gave insight into the current state of the juvenile justice system, as well as advice and best practices that they felt, moving forward, could aid in decreasing the amount of youth who are filtered through juvenile detention facilities everyday.

The panel began with Laurie Garduque, PhD, Director of Justice Programs for the MacArthur Foundation, who highlighted the years of service that the MacArthur Foundation has dedicated to reforming the juvenile justice system. She emphasized that the current trend is to approach the juvenile justice system with fairness, while justice is still being served. The MacArthur Foundation’s “Models for Change” initiative supports rational, fair, and effective juvenile justice systems that recognize the developmental differences between juveniles and adults. Marsha Levick, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, spoke about the substantial progress in states to reform local juvenile justice systems. Marsha emphasized the need to focus on youth with mental health issues, to decrease the number of juveniles in the adult system, to ensure legal representation of juveniles and to reduce harm that is suffered by juveniles of color.

Dr. B.J. Casey, Professor and Director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology of the Weill Medical College of Cornell University presented her extensive research on adolescent brain development.  As evidenced in studies led by Dr. Casey, the prefrontal lobe of the brain, which concerns emotional regulation, does not fully mature until the early 20s. Thus, there is a strong correlation between risk, peer influence and irrational decisions made by youth based on the lack of brain maturity. Robert May ended the panel discussion with the introduction of the Kids for Cash documentary, about the largest judicial corruption scandal in U.S. history involving more than 2,500 children and more than 6,000 cases. The film puts a spotlight on the impact that this travesty had on children shackled and removed from their homes–often without legal representation or any evidence of illegal activity.

Watch video from the Kickoff event.