A Reporter’s Guide to Juvenile Justice

Adult vs. Juvenile

What’s the difference between a juvenile and an adult?
Connecticut’s justice system considers anyone 18 or older an adult. People younger than 18 are often tried as adults if their charges are deemed serious.

What’s the difference between the adult and juvenile justice systems?
The juvenile justice system is rehabilitative and so requires young people to get counseling, attend school and take advantage of other opportunities that will make them less likely to reoffend. Youth in the adult system rarely even have the option of doing these things.

We know that youth are safer in the juvenile system. Kids in adult prison are at high risk of suicide and various forms of victimization, including sexual assault.

Finally, juvenile records are sealed. This helps with school and job applications, thus creating more opportunities to contribute to society.

Does trying kids as juveniles let them off easy?
Young people are held accountable for their crimes in the juvenile system. In fact, they are likely to receive more restrictive sentences in juvenile court than in adult court, where their crimes are seen as relatively minor.

How do police treat juveniles?
Police need to give certain protections to juveniles 15-years-old and younger, such as making sure a parent is present for questioning. 16-year-olds have fewer protections than younger juveniles under Connecticut law. For example, a judge may rule that an interrogation of a 16-year-old is admissible in court even if parents were not present.

Do youth have to be separated from adult prisoners?
Federal law requires sight and sound separation between juveniles and adults. Juveniles can be locked up in police holding cells normally used for adults so long as no adult prisoners are being held there at the time.

Does juvenile status preclude “getting tough on crime?”
Serious crimes are routinely transferred to adult court for children as young as 14. Recent reforms to move youth out of the adult system all exempt A and B felonies, which continue to be prosecuted as adult offenses. Whether this is “tough on crime” or just “tough on kids” is an interesting question. The Centers for Disease Control found that sending a child to the adult system was connected to recidivism and increased violence. A CDC panel concluded that processing minors as adults is bad for the public health because it increases violence in the community.

What is Raise the Age?
Connecticut was one of the last states to set the age of adult prosecution at 16, even for minor, non-violent crimes. Raise the Age was a campaign to reform that law. As of January 1, 2010, non-violent 16-year-olds returned to the juvenile system. 17-year-olds got juvenile protection starting in 2012.

How does juvenile status affect the way I do my reporting?
The names of juveniles are not public information, as juvenile records are sealed. Police and court officers must withhold the name of any minor charged with a crime unless the case is transferred to adult court.

About kids in the system

Who is in the juvenile justice system?

The thousands of children who enter the system each year are all individuals with unique stories, but we see some common denominators:

  • 2/3 are boys.
  • Most have mental health and/or substance abuse problems.
  • Most have not committed a violent crime.
  • Many need special education.
  • Many first entered state care as victims of abuse or neglect.

What happens to youth in the system?
The court determines the best way to hold a youth accountable while addressing the root causes of behavior. This could range from community counseling under the supervision of a probation officer, to a treatment facility, to secure confinement. Boys are confined at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. There are two locked facilities for girls. Often youth will progress from a more to a less restrictive placement as their behavior improves and they get closer to the time they will return to their home communities.

Does race affect the way children are treated?
Yes. Connecticut has done three major studies to determine if and how race affects how a child is treated in the juvenile justice system. African-American and Hispanic youth are more likely to enter the system than their white peers and are treated more harshly there. This is a national problem, around which many myths have developed. It’s important to look at the data about race and justice to get the facts straight:

  • Minority youth are not committing more crime than whites.
  • Even when researchers control for poverty, race alone puts children at a disadvantage.
  • Cities, suburbs and rural areas all treat minority youth more severely.

What role do schools play in the juvenile justice system?
Children are more likely to be arrested at school than they were a generation ago. Most of these arrests are for relatively minor offenses, such as school-yard scuffles and failure to obey. What was considered a fight yesterday is considered assault today. While it’s important for schools to maintain discipline and safety, educators need to be supported with better options to manage student behavior.

Public safety and crime prevention

Are young people who commit crimes likely to be repeat offenders?
Research shows that most teens who commit crimes will not continue this behavior into adulthood.

How do we prevent crime in our communities?
The Centers for Disease Control found that keeping children out of the adult system decreases the odds that they will commit further crimes or escalate into violence.

Is youth violence increasing?
No. Youth violence decreased though the 1990s and the first decade of this century.

How do I keep my child out of the system?
Kids with good school attendance are less likely to be arrested, so even in the early grades it’s important to make sure your child is in class every day. Surveys show that most juvenile crime happens between 3 and 6 p.m., when parents are still at work. Getting your child involved in after school activities cuts down on unsupervised time.

Connecticut’s shrinking system

What’s Connecticut doing to change its system?
Connecticut is investing more in community services that keep children out of the system. The caseload of the juvenile justice system has dropped. This shows that prevention benefits kids and taxpayers.

Are further reforms needed?
Absolutely. About 10,000 children still get referred to juvenile court each year. We should continue to invest in the programs we know keep kids out of trouble: including welcoming schools, positive youth activities and good mental health services.

What is FWSN?
FWSN stands for Families with Service Needs. Youth enter the FWSN system for status offenses. These are behaviors that are troubling in young people – such as truancy or running away from home – but are not crimes. The FWSN system serves the whole family to address these behaviors. This reduces the risk that these children will enter the juvenile justice system.

Need more information?

The Alliance is happy to talk with you about juvenile justice and provide you with state and national data that shed light on these issues. Please call 203-579-2727.