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The idea of hauling young offenders into court — and hoping lockup will change them — no longer appeals to a host of experts who work in the juvenile criminal justice system. But it’s not always easy for law enforcement, probation officers and even defense attorneys to know what they can do differently to deter kids who are at risk of becoming adult offenders.

As part of a partnership, four centers that offer expertise on reforms have just been given a portion of an infusion of $15 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has already invested $150 million in juvenile-justice research and reform over nearly 20 years. The foundation’s decision speaks to research-based theories that are gaining traction, which postulate that overly punitive approaches can increase juveniles’ risk of turning into expensive adult inmates.

The new “Resource Center Partnership” was announced in Atlanta in August at the National Conference of State Legislators’ 2013 Legislative Conference.

The centers receiving the foundation money are part of a hub of experts who provide training and consultation in key areas, including mental-health needs for youth and higher quality legal representation to advocate for youth in court.

The need for troubled youths to be in close touch with mental-health experts was underscored in August when a 20-year-old — with documented psychological needs — entered a Georgia school armed with a rifle and 500 rounds of ammo. He exchanged gunfire with police, but was talked into surrendering by a school bookkeeper who showered him with empathy in a calm but firm tone.

The groups receiving the grants are the National Juvenile Defender Center; the Status Offense Reform Center, the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice; and a new technical Assistance and Education Center attached to the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice.

As the MacArthur Foundation noted, as many as 70 percent of more than 2 million children and older youth who enter the juvenile justice system have “at least one diagnosable mental health need” and about a quarter have serious emotional problems.

And as brain research has increasingly made clear, juveniles just aren’t physiologically programmed to make the most logical decisions.

The Delmar, N.Y.-based National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice has a “Mistakes Kids Make” video message on its website summing up some facts that aren’t widely known by the public.

“Only five percent of kids who get arrested have committed a violent crime. But the other 95 percent often face the same fate,” the message says. Locking them away in a “one-size-fits-all” approach can expose them to danger and harden them more.

Minors accused of “status offenses,” such as running away or underage drinking, can end up in exposed to the hardening impact of detention rather than getting help that’s more appropriate for their needs.

Soledad McGrath, Justice Reform program officer for the MacArthur Foundation’s U.S. Programs, said the centers can help “practitioners on the ground” who already work in juvenile-justice systems. (The Center for Public Integrity receives funding for independent journalism from the MacArthur Foundation, but not for juvenile-justice reporting.)

McGrath said the funding will also strengthen a new network of “strategic allies” with the clout to push for change in local and state policies: they include the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Center for State Courts and the National Conference of State Legislatures, which conducts and disseminates new research and ideas to state lawmakers on problems they’re trying to address.

In a report last year, the National Conference of State Legislatures — a nonpartisan research group — said that states in the 1990s moved away from a “traditional emphasis on rehabilitation” toward “tougher, more punitive treatment of youth, including adult handling.”

Now a number of state legislators, both liberals and conservatives, are sold on the idea that there are better and less expensive ways to rehabilitate minors.

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Susan Ferriss joined CPI in 2011 and directs its immigration project. As a Cox Newspapers Latin America...