Starting this week, cases involving 17-year-olds in Connecticut will be moved from the adult criminal justice system to the state’s juvenile courts. It’s all part of a sea change in philosophy in which the state is trying get troubled teens into educational and vocational training programs instead of prisons.

The transition is likely to raise some legal and logistical issues, but that has not dampened the enthusiasm of Superior Court Judge Carol A. Wolven, the newly appointed chief administrative judge of juvenile matters. “I’m really looking forward to getting started,” said Wolven.

Wolven became a judge in 2001. Since then, she has presided over juvenile cases and, most recently, family law matters at the Judicial District Courthouse in Bridgeport. As a former registered nurse and a lawyer who handled custody matters, Wolven brings a unique perspective to her work, Chief Court Administrator Barbara M. Quinn said.

“This is a demanding assignment and I am certain that Judge Wolven will do an excellent job,” said Quinn. “She has a depth of experience not only in juvenile court, but in family court. This provides her with the ability to see a child within the dynamics of his or her family, which is essential when presiding over juvenile cases.”

Wolven will assume her new post Sept. 4, succeeding Judge Christine Keller, who served two, five-year terms. Wolven’s new duties will include representing the juvenile courts in policy-making decisions on a state level, and advising and assisting other juvenile judges. There are currently 12 juvenile courts in the state, handling about 25,000 cases a year.

With the addition of 17-year-olds, that number could increase by about 30 percent this coming fiscal year. Wolven said the court is already preparing for the increased caseload. For instance, she said, 18 new juvenile probation officers have been added.

‘Biggest Issue’

While juvenile courts were once relegated to relative obscurity, in part because of the extra privacy protections afforded to proceedings, the world of juvenile justice has been pushed into the limelight in recent weeks.

Not only did the U.S. Supreme Court issue a major decision on life sentences for juvenile lawbreakers, but Connecticut is implementing the second part of its “Raise the Age” initiative.

For years, Connecticut was one of the few states to include 16- and 17-year-olds in its adult court system. That began to change in 2007, when Connecticut changed its law on the heels of studies that showed juvenile lawbreakers who ended up in prisons often embarked on a life of crime. Under the new law, 16- and 17-year-olds were to be treated as juveniles, except for the most serious of crimes, Class A felonies such as murder.

The 16-year-olds were phased into juvenile courts in 2009. Those who are 17 will be handled as juveniles starting this week. Accomodating that large group is “the biggest issue the state is facing right now,” said Fran Carino, the top juvenile prosecutor for the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office.

Among the adjustments that Judge Wolven and others will have to make, said Carino, is making allowances for the “differences between someone who is 12 or 13 and someone who is 17.”

For example, court officials worry that it might not be a good idea to hold older teens and younger juveniles in the same facilities, or to transport them to court in the same vehicles. Also, officials are still working out exactly what sort of services the older teens will receive in addition to legal representation. For example, a 17-year-old might need a career counselor, while a sutitable caregiver might be more important for a 12-year-old.

“Some of these 17-year-olds are going to be parents themselves, so that may fit in with how we handle their cases,” Carino said.

The age change has been met with some concerns on the part of defense lawyers. New Haven attorney Willie Dow said those juveniles who commit the most serious crimes are still going to be treated as adults anyway. “To me, if is aint broke, don’t fix it,” he said.

Meanwhiile, on June 25, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges can’t impose mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles convicted of homicide.

Justice Elena Kagan announced the decision in Miller v. Alabama for a 5-4 majority, asserting that juveniles’ “lesser culpability” makes it unconstitutional for them to be sentenced under a scheme that does not give the judge the ability to consider factors such as the defendant’s age, maturity and upbringing in determining the sentence. “Youth matters,” Kagan said from the bench.

The ruling paves the way for roughly 2,000 inmates nationwide to seek reversal of their life sentences, according to one estimate. Wolven said that decision will cause a review of five cases in Connecticut. “Connecticut is going to have to review the statute, as far as mandatory sentences of life without parole,” she said.

The decision, she said, along with the move to raise the age of juvenile offenders to 18, is consistent with scientific research that shows that human brains don’t mature until a person reaches their 20s. And so across the country, young offenders are being offered counseling and second chances in hopes that they will make better decisions as they get older.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision, said Wolven, “shows that Connecticut is right in step.”•