Blog Post: Juvenile Justice Future in the Balance

This OpEd by Executive Director, Abby Anderson, was originally printed in the Connecticut Post on April 4, 2018

ABBY ANDERSON

This month, Connecticut’s state Legislature is considering big questions about the future of our juvenile justice system. As our government prepares to close our youth prison in July, we must decide how best to keep our communities safe, and hold young people accountable for mistakes while helping them onto a better path.

Proposals range from moving most youth under 21 into the juvenile justice system, to transferring more 15-year-olds into the adult system without a hearing.

Research tells us the vast majority of young people simply “age out” of delinquent or criminal behavior. That doesn’t mean we ignore delinquency. It means we should address youthful offending in ways that ensure and accelerate that aging out process, as opposed to our current policies that perpetuate and exacerbate conditions that lead to crime.

Connecticut young people don’t just “do the crime; do the time” and it’s over. Our system brands individuals for life, reducing their ability to go to school, get housing, get jobs — all the things proven to reduce recidivism. Proposed changes to policies and practices in our Department of Correction would address this problem and are good for public safety and youth.

To be effective, those changes must be accompanied by budget allocations that prioritize alternative programs and services to replace youth prisons with more effective, small facilities and community programs. Our budgets must prioritize the communities we’ve historically marginalized. For decades, Connecticut has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into our juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Proposals to change how we treat emerging adults who break the law and the imminent closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School reflect an understanding that it’s time to stop investing in a system that has hurt communities without improving public safety.

Instead, community-based leaders, those primarily impacted by our longterm investment in mass incarceration, must lead us in how we reallocate funding to re-build their communities.

Closing youth prisons and treating emerging adults in ways that preserve their long-term ability to productively contribute in their communities align with bi-partisan research and best practice.

Unfortunately, while Connecticut moves forward in these areas, there are discussions looking to go backwards — conversations about changing state law to criminalize and jail children who are suicidal or who live in unsafe homes, and about expanding those youth under 18 whose cases would automatically go to the adult court, without judicial review of individual circumstances.

To be clear, we embrace accountability. We believe it is a two-way street. Youth should be held accountable when they commit crimes; we, as policy, advocacy, and state leaders must also be held accountable for providing the programs and services children and youth need to have a first chance, let alone a “second chance.”

Our budget choices and priorities directly impact the lives and options available to young people. We must acknowledge that truth and hold ourselves to the same high standard of accountability we want our youth to uphold.

Accountability also means making sure Connecticut continues to lead nationally. This state has announced its intention to be a non-participating state under the only federal juvenile justice legislation in existence — the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act.

They say that the accountability standards set by the JJDAP is lower than what Connecticut achieves, so the act is irrelevant.

Maybe that’s true today. But what message does Connecticut’s refusal to participate send to other states? What message does it send to future policy makers and state leaders about being accountable to federal juvenile justice mandates?

The JJDPA has been law since 1974. Connecticut would become only the third state in the history of this legislation to be a non-participant.

Connecticut is seen as a national leader in juvenile justice reform. This moment will determine if we maintain or degrade that status.

Abby Anderson is executive director of the Bridgeport-based Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, which works to end the criminalization of children.