The Reclaiming Futures “Living Laboratory”: Translating Science into Practice to Create a More Responsive Juvenile Justice System

Translational research is concerned with moving basic (“bench”) research to clinical and ultimately practical benefit (“bedside”). If research can in fact demonstrate beneficial outcomes, then it may even lead to policy changes. The Reclaiming Futures initiative, among other things, has sought to be a vehicle and a catalyst for doing just that -- for translating research to practice by constructing a model approach and a “living laboratory” to make juvenile justice and community systems safer, more clinically and socially effective for those affected by drugs and/or alcohol.  And, we’ve done this in part by building accessible pathways to bring research-tested approaches into communities committed to reform and practice improvement.

In each of its 41 implementations across the country, Reclaiming Futures includes research-driven practices such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Functional Family Therapy, Multisystemic Therapy, the use of validated and normed risk assessment tools, mentoring, Motivational Enhancement Therapy, Matrix Model, Seven Challenges, Community Reinforcement Approach among other interventions. Reclaiming Futures also marries promising approaches such as the emerging popularity of graduated responses, full or partial adoption of the GAIN family of assessment/treatment planning/evaluation tools, various restorative justice methods, intensive probation and drug court principles among others.

It is very exciting to see evidence-based practices becoming standard practice and strong results being generated by Reclaiming Futures sites around the country. But, for this “living laboratory” to continue to realize its full potential it is critical for all the sites within the initiative to commit to capturing robust evaluation data to further the translational value of the model. It is also critically important that evaluators or others do a good job of publishing Reclaiming Futures site results (both successes and challenges). Sites should implement Reclaiming Futures with fidelity to its practice principles, and provide the implementation infrastructure sufficient enough to fully deploy the model with proper attention to its evidence supported elements.

Reclaiming Futures has already led to systems and policy changes in many jurisdictions at both the county and state level. For example in North Carolina, adoption of Reclaiming Futures led to systems reforms in the statewide juvenile justice case management system, created new assessment protocols for court involved and diverted youths, helped to align two large statewide agencies toward streamlined treatment, training and community engagement for court-involved youth among other changes.  The potential for similar statewide impact is developing in Ohio and Oregon.

This is the goal of translating research to practice --- to take proven and promising approaches, bring them up to “scale” in live situations where various factors can be observed and measured, in order to help explain their value. The applied clinical, program, policy and evaluation information coming from the growing number of interventions and sites makes Reclaiming Futures an exceptionally good organizing model to translate science to practice.  Seen in this way, the Reclaiming Futures national learning collaborative affords those in the government, philanthropic and social science communities a real world laboratory in which to invest, disseminate and field-test important new approaches on a national scale.  This is a “win-win” for Reclaiming Futures, the communities where we have implemented but also for the stakeholders who have invested in us like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and most recently the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.  These kinds of good investments have led to important lessons for the field and have allowed us to strengthen, clarify and scale up of the Reclaiming Futures model.

Robin Jenkins, Ph.D., Juvenile Justice, Community Systems and Policy Consultant is a member of Reclaiming Future's National Advisory Committee and has been involved with the initiative in many ways. Robin helped implement the first Reclaiming Futures statewide adaptation in North Carolina and has an extensive juvenile justice and behavioral health background.

Evan Elkin is a senior advisor to Reclaiming Futures and has been involved with the initiative in a variety of capacities since it’s launch in 2000. Evan serves as the treatment model developer for the Reclaiming Futures Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment adaptation (SBIRT-Juvenile Justice) and Clinical Director overseeing the three-year, five-site pilot.

Updated: March 23 2015