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Award Honors Center on Front Lines of Juvenile Justice

Children and Family Justice Center receives $750,000 from MacArthur Foundation

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February 27, 2013 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

CHICAGO --- The Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) at the Northwestern University School of Law has received a $750,000 award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in recognition of the Center's exemplary advocacy for children caught up in the harsh realities of Illinois’ juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Announced today, Feb. 28, the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions was awarded to 13 nonprofits around the world. The award recognizes innovation in tackling persistent problems, and each awardee received a one-time grant as an investment in its future.

CFJC attorneys, social workers, community outreach staff and law students work on the ground daily representing children whose stories drive the major reform efforts represented in the Center's research, policy proposals and reports.

"We know the children's lives, their struggles, their stories, and we use that knowledge to educate judges, parole authorities, legislatures and other decision-makers about policies and institutions that far too often fail our children," said Julie Biehl, director of the Children and Family Justice Center.

At the same time, the Center teaches and mentors the next generation of lawyers and policy advocates through the involvement of Northwestern law students in all aspects of its advocacy.

For 20 years, the Center has represented children in conflict with the law and advocated for policy reform on issues ranging from extreme sentencing of youth and fitness to stand trial to the urgent need to help extremely vulnerable youth transition from incarceration back into society. Eliminating the sentence of life without parole for juveniles is also a major focus of the Center's reform efforts.

A 15-year-old CFJC client, for example, was sentenced to life in prison without parole despite her young age and extenuating circumstances. Another client with a mental health condition who damaged a ceiling tile at his foster care facility was charged with a felony, and another, a young single mother, was arrested for violating her parole for taking her infant to daycare.

“Center faculty, through their tireless representation and advocacy, have changed juvenile justice in Illinois,” said Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern University School of Law. “We celebrate this award because it honors the Center's many accomplishments and will allow it to expand its efforts in the community."

The foundation does not seek or accept nominations for the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. To qualify, organizations must have relatively modest budgets, demonstrate exceptional creativity and effectiveness and work in an area central to one of the MacArthur Foundation's core programs. Organizations will use the support to build cash reserves and endowments, develop strategic plans, and upgrade technology and physical infrastructure.

"We are advocates on the front lines of the Illinois juvenile justice system, and we also are educators who help our students develop skills as lawyers," said CFJC director Biehl.

In turn, Center clients benefit from the talents of Northwestern Law students whose advocacy includes everything from interviewing children, arguing their cases in court and making motions to help them reenter society after prison.

"The Children and Family Justice Center certainly 'engages with the world' -- a key pillar of Northwestern’s strategic plan -- and we are proud of the MacArthur Foundation's recognition of the difference the Center is making in juvenile justice,” said Northwestern President Morton Schapiro.

The driving motivation for the Children and Family Justice Center is that children should be treated differently than adults in the criminal justice system.

Illinois was the first state to establish a juvenile court that recognized that children should be treated differently in the eyes of the law, but having society understand that critical reality has been a struggle for the last 20 years, Biehl noted.

"There are other ways to rehabilitate and provide consequences for young people who make mistakes that keep the public safe, that are cost effective, that are just, that are humane and that are more efficient,” she said.

That includes helping children get the services they need, for example, if they have substance abuse issues or mental health problems, Biehl said.

The Center is committed to informing and empowering youth and their families through its “Know Your Rights” publications and trainings, which have also been made possible by support from the MacArthur Foundation.

Another Center initiative, also sponsored by the foundation helped create a statewide juvenile defender resource center and network to provide juvenile defense attorneys with opportunities for leadership, education, training and mentoring.

The Center’s casework-informed policy initiatives also have included efforts to end the juvenile death penalty, raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and address harsh collateral consequences of involvement in the criminal justice system.

The Children and Family Justice Center and the 12 other organizations chosen to receive a  MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions this year are helping to address challenging problems throughout the world.

“From New York to New Delhi, these extraordinary organizations are making a real difference in the lives of people and communities,” said MacArthur President Robert Gallucci. “MacArthur recognizes their importance and impact, and we hope our investment will help ensure that they continue to thrive and to increase their reach in the future.”

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