Beyond “What Works”

Beyond “What Works”

March 14, 2016 | Julio Marcial, The California Wellness Foundation

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When I became a program director at The California Wellness Foundation in 2007, one of the first grants I recommended for funding focused on transforming juvenile justice practices in California. That particular $180,000 grant was made to the Children’s Initiative, which at that time was working on several public policies to reduce the number of young people entering San Diego County’s juvenile justice system.  

When I became a program director at The California Wellness Foundation in 2007, one of the first grants I recommended for funding focused on transforming juvenile justice practices in California. That particular $180,000 grant was made to the Children’s Initiative, which at that time was working on several public policies to reduce the number of young people entering San Diego County’s juvenile justice system.  

Juvenile justice reform as a violence prevention strategy has long been a priority for Cal Wellness, dating back to its founding in 1992. At that time, the state of California ran the world’s largest network of youth prisons—a set of institutions and camps holding more than 10,000 youth per day, known collectively as the California Youth Authority, or the CYA.   

What we then needed was accurate, detailed, in-depth research to tell us why California’s youth were being incarcerated at such high rates and what policy changes were needed to reduce the number of youth entering the system. In partnership with other local, regional, state, and national foundations—and countless other nonprofit organizations and individuals—we hoped to provide a comprehensive view of the factors contributing to high levels of youth incarceration and equip our partners to make changes both locally and statewide.  

This is indeed what happened.  

The number of youth incarcerated by the California Department of Juvenile Justice (formerly the CYA) has decreased by more than 90% over the past two decades. Approximately 600 youth are currently incarcerated in the state’s institutions and camps.   

One of the questions about juvenile justice that elected officials and their staff often ask grantmakers is: “What works?” But the more valuable question, in my opinion, is: “What would it take to succeed?” I believe this is the most powerful question facing funders in their attempts to further reduce the numbers of young people going into the California juvenile justice system. When community organizers launched efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they focused on what it would take to succeed, and they did. We need the same approach in the juvenile justice field. 

California’s groundbreaking work to reduce its youth incarceration rate over the past 20 years has included hundreds of organizations using hundreds of strategies. Some of these strategies have been proven to be effective by evaluation, while others have not. This is another reminder that it takes time to produce results. Not every worthy intervention can provide proof of effectiveness, and very few can provide evidence of significant short-term results achieved by that intervention alone. To get better results, we must be willing to draw on, generate, and apply a broader range of evidence that takes into account a comprehensive strategy to further reduce the number of youth entering the juvenile justice system.  

For instance, the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) in Richmond, California, uses street outreach and its Operation Peacemaker Fellowship program to help reduce and prevent gun violence among young people who may otherwise become ensnared in the justice system. Cal Wellness recently partnered with NCCD to conduct a process evaluation of the ONS and the Fellowship, which contributed to building the evidence base for similar pioneering approaches.  

As another example, the California Cities Gang Prevention Network, a project of NCCD and the National League of Cities, supported by Cal Wellness and other funders, brought together cities seeking innovative strategies to reduce community violence.  

After 20 years of work in the violence prevention field, Cal Wellness understands that no single program or strategy can turn things around in an entire community or for a whole population, such as youth in the juvenile justice system. Nor can complex social programs and policies be tested like new drugs. The interventions that will transform California’s juvenile justice system are not stable chemicals manufactured and administered in fixed doses. They are complex efforts with multiple components, some of which may be proven by randomized controlled trials, but many that cannot, because they require adaptations to fit local circumstances. This work is complex, and determining exactly what works in any given population is even harder. 

I appeal to our policymakers, philanthropic colleagues, and practitioners to take a more holistic view of the complexities and underlying conditions at the community level that increase the likelihood of young people entering the juvenile justice system and to ask ourselves more broadly: “What will it take to succeed?”

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Julio Marcial is a program director at The California Wellness Foundation, where he currently manages grantmaking related to violence prevention. His responsibilities include requesting and evaluating grant proposals, conducting site visits, making funding recommendations, and monitoring active grants. Marcial is an appointed member of the Juvenile Justice Standing Committee of the California Board of State and Community Corrections, and a member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Urban Networks to Increase Thriving Youth.