The state’s efforts to keep juveniles out of adult court has reduced the number of young people who are incarcerated by more than 70 percent, according to a new report.
The Justice Policy Institute, of Washington, D.C., found that Connecticut’s juvenile court system has taken several important steps over the past 10 years to address lawbreakers under age 18. Those steps include using more community-based juvenile review boards (which hand out non-incarceration sanctions) and treatment-based diversion programs.
Also, since 2007, the state has been implementing a "raise-the-age" program to move most under-18 lawbreakers from the adult court system to juvenile court. Previously, most 16- and 17-year-olds charged with serious crimes were tried as adults, accounting for more than 10,000 new cases per year.
Connecticut Judicial Branch officials conducted research for the report, which also spotlighted the state’s recent decision to ban incarceration for most truancy-related offenses. By focusing on alternative approaches, the state reduced the number of juveniles who were removed from their homes and placed in juvenile detention centers from 680 in 2000 to 216 in 2012. The number of inmates in adult prisons who are under 18 fell from 403 in 2007 to 151 in 2012.
"We did studies looking at the reasons kids were coming into the juvenile justice court system," said William Carbone, executive director of the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Division. "We found there were many things we could do to reduce those numbers, including working with the schools."
Last year, juvenile court officials signed agreements with police and school officials in Hartford, Bridgeport and Stamford. Under those agreements, police are called to make arrests in schools for only violent, serious offenses; school officials will handle less serious transgressions. That will keep hundreds of cases per year out of the court system, Carbone said.
The report recommends that other states follow Connecticut’s lead. Four other states — Arizona, Minnesota, Louisiana and Tennessee — were also credited with reducing the number of locked-up juveniles by 50 percent, with no upticks in crime reported.
In a prepared statement, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said "bold steps have made Connecticut a nationwide model for reform…Connecticut should be proud of its unyielding commitment to improving the system to keep our most vulnerable youth safe and give them a second chance."
Juvenile detention has been in the spotlight in Connecticut ever since 1993, when a federal lawsuit was filed against the state by the Center for Children’s Advocacy. Emily J. v. Weicker sought to end crowding in juvenile detention centers in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford. It claimed too many children were being held in detention centers because they were runaways and there were no other placement options.
In 1997, the federal court approved a consent decree, which called for more juvenile probation officers and for the state to seek alternatives to incarceration for juveniles whenever possible. In 2002, the Center for Children’s Advocacy claimed the state was not abiding by the consent decree. That led to a second court-ordered settlement, which called for the state to provide $8.5 million to establish and run programs for juvenile offenders.
"The settlement led to a major change, shifting how we handled juvenile offenders. Instead of putting youths in detention, we developed ways to keep them in their homes," Carbone said.
As one example, the state recently hired about 20 new juvenile probation officers who are trained in counseling. When a teen is arrested for a minor offense, counselors work with parents and help them better understand their obligations. Instead of putting the child into the court system, and possibly into a detention facility, the counselors visit the home each day. "They show up at 7 o’clock, they make sure that everyone is up and that the kids are going to school," Carbone said. "They teach the parents the importance of setting the alarm clock and going to the PTA meetings."
Carbone pointed out that the program, which costs about $8,000 per child per year, is a big savings to the $100,000 price tag of keeping a teen locked up. "The recidivism will be a lot lower for those kids as well," he said.
Juvenile prosecutors are somewhat less optimistic. Francis J. Carino, the supervisory juvenile prosecutor for the Division of Criminal Justice, suggested crime rates could rise. "I think it’s too soon to tell whether raising the age of juvenile offenders to 18 is going to be successful or not," he said. "It’s going to be hard to pinpoint whether keeping them out of the adult court system is working.
"If a kid commits a serious robbery, and they get a piece of paper telling them they have to go to court, what are they going to learn from that?" he said. "Kids tend to respond to instant consequences. If the consequence is getting a piece of paper, a ticket, I’m not sure how much of a deterrent that’s going to be."