The next time a Hartford teen pushes someone or refuses to take off his baseball hat in class, the discipline will be handled in the school instead of in court.
Hartford police and school officials have signed an agreement that will cut down the number of arrests of students in Hartford schools that are made for minor offenses. The agreement not to involve police in non-emergency problems at schools is the latest effort by the state’s juvenile justice system aimed at reducing the contact young people have with the criminal court.
“This goes back to some studies we did looking at the reasons kids were coming into the juvenile court system,” William H. Carbone, executive director of the state judicial branch’s Court Support Services Division said. “Many of the offenses appeared to be quite minor, things like minor scuffles, having cigarettes in their pocket, not taking a hat off in class.”
Under the new agreement, school officials will handle these minor incidents as administrative matters and involve police “for only the most serious offenses,” Carbone said. The approach complements the increased use of juvenile review boards, which many municipalities are now using to decide cases involving out-of-school incidents.
The latest agreement is expected to dramatically reduce the number of young people who are arrested at school for non-violent offenses. Last year, Carbone said, there were 120 such referrals to juvenile court from Hartford schools.
A disproportionate number of juveniles who ended up being arrested and referred to court were minority students, said Martha Stone, the executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy at the University of Connecticut Law School.
Stone said the new agreement in Hartford is similar to agreements between schools and police in Bridgeport, Stamford, Willimantic and Manchester. She called it an important step in reducing the number of minority students being referred to court. “Your race or ethnicity should not determine how you are handled in the juvenile justice system,” Stone said.
Sharon Dornfeld, a Danbury attorney who recently served as chair of the Family Law Section of the Connecticut Bar Association, said there are many benefits to diverting juvenile cases, rather than resolving the matters in court.
“Kids make bad decisions because they are kids,” said Dornfeld, whose practice includes representation of young people in a range of situations. “And when they do something because they are kids, should they be brought into a criminal context which requires intent, just because they are acting immaturely, which teenagers do?”
Part of the initiative was launched a year ago, when juvenile probation officers were empowered to look over criminal complaints stemming from incidents in schools and send the less serious cases back to be handled by educators.
Since then, more than 300 referals to juvenile court across the state have been returned to the schools, where Carbone said discipline for minor offenses is best handled.
“This allows the court and probation officers to focus on the more serious cases that need increased supervision,” he said. “The other thing it does, is when kids are referred to court, they tend to live up to that label. So we lose them, from an education standpoint as well as from a public safety perspective.”•