Juvenile Justice Reform and the Stages of Systems Change

Doug Easterling, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Arnold, Ph.D.
August 12, 2011

In the interviews we’ve conducted for our evaluation of six Reclaiming Futures sites in North Carolina,
we often hear the initiative characterized as “exciting” and
“promising,” but also as complex, challenging and messy. Those of you
who are living Reclaiming Futures on a day-to-day basis recognize that
changing systems is a process full of ups and downs, wins and
setbacks. It’s easy to lose track of the larger progress that your
initiative is making in improving the lives of youth who come through
the justice system.

Collectively, the two of us have close to 25 years of experience
evaluating programs and initiatives. Through this experience, we’ve
learned that one of the most important benefits that evaluation can
bring is a clearer, broader picture of what’s happening on the
ground. Toward that end, we have developed a model of the “stages of
development” that occur for systems-change initiatives like Reclaiming
The premise of the model is that a coalition carrying out
systems-change work passes through five distinct stages at predictable
points in its life course. We’ve named these stages:
  1. initiation
  2. team development
  3. initial impact
  4. extending the impact
  5. sustaining the process of innovation and reform
The nature of a coalition’s work shifts considerably from one stage
to the next. Moreover, each stage has a unique set of “developmental
tasks” that must be mastered if the initiative is to succeed in moving
on to later stages.
Defining Task
1. Initiation
Obtain funding
2. Team Development
Establish an effective infrastructure to carry out systems-change work
3. Initial Impact
Accomplish a concrete, meaningful act of systems change
4. Extending the Impact
Move from a narrow win to accomplishing broader scale changes in the system
5. Sustaining the process of innovation and reform
Become a permanent venue and force for stimulating whatever changes in the system need to occur as times and conditions change
Our experience in evaluating a variety of systems-change
initiatives over the years is that local coalitions and projects fail to
reach their full potential because they get stuck in one stage or
another. And if coalition members fail to successfully resolve the key
developmental challenge for the stage they are in, it’s a pretty sure
bet that the effort will lose steam and fall apart within 6-12 months. 
On the other hand, if a coalition understands and addresses the key
defining challenge for each successive stage of development, the group
can move more efficiently toward becoming an effective, long-term force
for systems change.
More details on the model are included in the attached two files: 
  1. a list of the specific tasks that need to be accomplished in each stage; and
  2. a PowerPoint presentation summarizing the developmental stages of systems change initiatives,
    which we presented at the national RF meeting in Miami. (The PowerPoint
    file is slightly different from what we presented in Miami, taking into
    account various ideas that come up during the very thoughtful
    discussion that occurred in the session.)
We are interested in hearing more from those of you who are directly involved in the process of systems reform. 
  • Does the model seem to describe your experience to date?
  • What changes would you propose?
  • How long has it taken your coalition to move through the different stages?
  • Which of the developmental challenges have proven most daunting to your local initiative?
  • Have you learned any useful lessons on how to navigate those challenges?
Thanks for your contributions, as well as for your hard work in your own communities.

Doug Easterling, Ph.D.,
is the Chair of the Department of Social Sciences and Health Policy at
Wake Forest School of Medicine. His research focuses on community-based
approaches to improving health and quality of life, with a special
emphasis on initiatives that build social capital or change community

Dr. Liz Arnold
is currently Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine
and Social Sciences and Health Policy at Wake Forest University School
of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC. She is also a faculty affiliate with
the Maya Angelou Research Center on Minority Health. Her career has focused on
intervention development and community based research with vulnerable
and high-risk groups. She is t
he co-author of
Substance Abuse Treatment for Criminal Offenders: An Evidenced-Based Guide for Practitioners published by the American Psychological Association.

This article was originally published on Reclaiming Futures.  It is reprinted here with permission.