Graduate student laying important groundwork for juvenile justice reform

Ellie West
March 18, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Master of Public Policy (MPP) graduate student Kaj Althaus has great ambitions for reforming juvenile justice policy. As he prepares to become one of the MPP program’s first graduates this May, Althaus is working diligently to refine his capstone project with the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.

“My project basically focuses on exploring the rationale for sentencing juveniles as adults,” he explained. “The commission provides me with the necessary data, and with that I try to create a demographic profile — who are these juveniles and why are they being sentenced and treated as adults?”

Althaus is currently running statistical analyses and examining sentencing rates of juveniles based on sex, race, age and legal characteristics. He said he hopes the project will ultimately provide insight into whether there is a need for unique sentencing guidelines or recommendations for prosecuting youths within the adult criminal justice system.

His capstone project was not his first experience working with the commission. Last summer, Althaus interned with the agency as a data and research assistant, an opportunity made possible by the MPP program. On top of assisting data analysts, creating annotated biographies and completing literature reviews, the internship also gave him opportunities to work on more than 10 different research projects.

“One specific project I had was looking at judicial performance evaluations that analyzed the success rates of judges,” he said. “Through the data, we were able to discover that these retention surveys were actually highly subjective, so that was really interesting to be able to be a part of.”

Althaus’ work has not gone unnoticed, as he was recently named one of the 2020-21 recipients of the Penn State Graduate School’s Professional Master’s Excellence Award. The award recognizes individual student excellence in a professional master's degree program in any discipline based on the student’s academic record and the quality and impact of their culminating experience, including creative works, performance, and projects conducted in a professional setting.

Graduating from the University of Michigan with an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology and a minor in music, Althaus said he did not always envision himself pursuing a path in criminal justice and policy reform.

“I was originally planning on studying a field called ethnomusicology,” he said. “But after graduation I ended up taking a gap year to work as a student success coach with an educational nonprofit in New York called City Year.”

City Year mentors students in New York City’s public schools in the hopes of providing them the resources and skills they need to succeed. As a coach, Althaus helped mentor and tutor students after school. It was this experience that first sparked his interest in public policy.

“After working with City Year and seeing those policy issues play out in an urban setting firsthand, I became super interested in the field,” he said. “I really was drawn to criminal and juvenile justice specifically after learning about the school-to-prison pipeline and how prevalent that can be.”

Althaus said he has a series of overall policy changes that he would like to see implemented one day.

“There’s a lot to focus on, but in terms of juvenile incarceration I would like to see youths who find themselves in the system be able to have access to incarceration alternatives, such as community-based programming, where they can obtain whatever needs-based assistance they require,” he said. “I’d want to stray away from removing the juvenile from the community at all costs.”

In terms of career aspirations, Althaus said he has a diverse array of professional goals.

“Currently I’m looking at potential job opportunities as a juvenile detention specialist or probation officer,” he said. “But I would love to reach the executive or management level of either a government agency that works with juvenile justice, or a nonprofit like City Year. I also have public office aspirations, but that’s definitely a long way down the road.”

Whatever the future holds, Althaus said he is confident that the MPP program and its holistic attributes have prepared him well.

“In terms of learning style, the program really gave us a good skill set for teamwork and leadership — things that are invaluable in the policy realm,” he said. “You can’t separate politics from any form of policy or nonprofit work alike, so the skills and knowledge I’ve gained from my classes, like organizational theory for example, will go a long way.”

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Last Updated March 19, 2021