A new AI tool created in Baker McKenzie’s fledgling machine learning practice hopes its first major report will reveal more about the impact of child detention around the world.

A new AI tool created in Baker McKenzie’s fledgling machine learning practice hopes its first major report will reveal more about the impact of child detention around the world.

Reinvent Social Impact: Child Detention is an AI-driven study looking into child detention and family separation. The study identifies links between child detention and unintended negative consequences for detained children and the authorities detaining them.

The report uses data science and technology built by the firm’s AI partner SparkBeyond and is a result of Baker McKenzie’s recently announced machine learning practice, run by co-Founders Danielle Benecke and Brian Kuhn.

The report shows how detention hurts children’s cognitive functions, physical development and long-term health. Detained children are often victims of violence, frequently denied nutrition, excluded from education and recreation and fail to develop vital social skills such as self-control and conflict resolution.

A Baker McKenzie spokeswoman said evidence for all this was known by sociologists for many years, but the research is widely dispersed in thousands of studies, journal articles, academic research papers, news sources and government websites.

But now that AI-powered technology has advanced sufficiently, a project like this can systematically analyze each piece of sociological data to create a comprehensive bank of insights.

The motivation to build the tool, she said, is because Baker McKenzie wants to “raise awareness about children’s rights” so different communities can understand and protect those rights.

“Yes, we are business lawyers who work to advance the business objectives of our corporate clients around the globe. But that is not all we are. Pro bono work is part of our obligation as lawyers, as professionals and as global citizens. It is part of our firm’s DNA,” the spokeswoman said.

Baker McKenzie chief innovation officer Ben Allgrove said the project proves that both legal domain expertise and machine learning can be combined to uncover solutions to complex social issues.

“By bringing machine learning and data science into a law firm proved we can quickly bring a more accurate understanding of cause and consequence to inform policy, public opinion and advocacy on behalf of these children. We can scale the impact of our pro bono efforts,” Allgrove said.

SparkBeyond research lead Roey Tzezana said the tool demonstrated the company’s AI engine is largely free of bias and emotion and can quickly see alternate perspectives that are important to the public and to policy makers.

The project analyzed 400 billion web pages and uncovered millions of points of evidence linking child detention to a host of unintended consequences. The detrimental links between child detention and health, for example, were featured in more than 10 million publications. More than 100,000 evidence points alone connected detention to anxiety and depression.

Top findings from the Child Detention project include:

  • While the media focuses largely on the immediate tragedy, the long-term consequences of child detention are highly damaging to the children — and costly to society
  • While the stated purpose of child detention is often related to safety, the effect can be to decrease the safety of a community as well as for the child
  • Government officials and agencies should consider the full range of enduring negative consequences of child detention in many spheres, from mental health to crime and net cost to society

Cedric Foussard, global initiative coordinator at Terre des hommes, a Children’s Rights organization, said the tool offers new ways to address child detention.

“By studying a huge volume of research from all over the world, we now have concrete information on the thousands of children impacted by detention, and the consequences to society.”

Baker McKenzie Partner and head of Pro Bono practice Angela Vigil said the firm is also asking non-government organizations (NGOs) to outline what the firm could look at next, as part of its Reinvent Social Impact initiative.

“We want to help NGOs and other advocates make more nations aware of the negative impacts of child detention, to at least limit the behavior, if not end it entirely,” Vigil said.

The tool will be demonstrated at this year’s World Congress on Justice with Children.

Baker McKenzie has delivered multiple high-quality pro bono projects in the past few years.

In 2020, it launched a partnership with leading organizations including the Centre for International Rights to create the Youth Rights Resource Compass. The website directs young people, as well as those who advocate for them, to the entities, organizations, governments and other agencies that are open and available to them.

It also has created a partnership with the Consortium for Street Children to launch a Street Youth Atlas – an online database documenting street child law across the globe.

Other ongoing projects include attempts to address racism in encounters between law enforcement or security forces and young people.


By Nathan Smith

Baker McKenzie


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