Three juvenile justice bills aim to rebalance the scales.
Ending racial disparity, decreasing recidivism, and making the system more fair and accountable – lofty goals to be sure. With children of color more likely to enter juvenile justice system and treated more harshly than white peers, according to the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CJJA), proponents say it was high time for the state to fix the problem. As such, Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed a trio of bills earlier this month that aim to address the disparities.
One bill requires a court order to send anyone arrested on a juvenile charge to detention.
“Going to detention is a big deal. It’s traumatic for the child and extremely expensive for taxpayers,” said Abby Anderson, executive director of CJJA. “Kids should only be there if they can’t be safely managed in the community. Race should never enter into that or any other decision we make about how youth are treated.”
Three state studies showed children of color are detained at higher rates than their white peers. The state’s research showed poverty, seriousness of offense or location didn’t account for the disparity. Race alone determined whether a child was confined, according to CJJA.
“The intent behind this [racial disparity] is to ensure the system is more cautious about detaining children before their court date,” Mike Lawlor, undersecretary for Criminal Justice, said. “We learned that far more African American and Latino kids end up being sent to juvenile than white kids. That means we need an extra set of neutral eyes on this.”
State Sen. Toni Harp, a Democrat representing New Haven and West Haven in the 10th Senate District, said requiring a court order will probably go a long way to make police departments more aware.
“Sometimes [they] put youth in juvenile simply because they’re frustrated with the kids, the parent, the situation. It’s often easier in inner cities to send kids to detention than try to locate the parents,” Harp said.
State Rep. John Hetherington, a Republican representing New Canaan and Wilton in the 135th House District, favors the legislation.
“The thrust is to try to reduce impact for juveniles in prisons – particularly because a conclusion has been reached that there is a disproportionate balance,” Hetherington, who is a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said. “If we are really careful that violent juveniles will be separate, and there is no serious flight risk, then this is good.
There are many reasons for the imbalance, Lawlor said. There could be more African American or Latinos involved in criminal behavior. But it could also be the decision to detain is intentional because of overt or unintentional raciscm.
Lawlor spoke of his own past work as a prosecutor where he can see how decisions are made unintentionally. He recalled sometimes deciding to keep white youth out of the system because he thought they wouldn’t survive in the system.
“By no means is this a solution to the problem,” Lawlor said. “We need to address attitudes that drive this. Judges need to be as diverse as the people they preside over. We need to get more African American, Latino and women judges. You want a culturally sensitive judge dealing with these youth.”
State Rep. Paul Davis, a Democrat representing Milford, Orange, and West Haven in the 117th House District, supported all three pieces of legislation.
“The intent is to help,” Davis said. “The overwhelming numbers of juveniles involved in the system are minorities.”
And while there is some concern regarding cost, Davis isn’t dissuaded.
“I find in my experience the presence of the legislation itself serves as an instigator to get the services in place. There’s always going to be a shortage of funding no matter what. So this is a step in the right direction,” Davis said.
The governor also signed legislation to keep the state’s Raise the Age reform on track.
Previously, Connecticut was one of only three states to send 16-year-olds to the adult system, even for the most minor crimes. In Connecticut, 16-year-olds returned to the juvenile system last year. In 2012, 17-year-olds will as well. More serious crimes will still be treated as adult matters.
Overall it’s a good piece of legislation, said State Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican representing Bethel, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport, and Wilton in the 26th Senate District.
However, Boucher cautioned that the layoffs could impact juvenile facilities.
“The demand on juvenile facilities [is] already reducing staff,” Boucher said.
Another bill, an Act Concerning Juvenile Reentry, will help youth who had been in detention to re-enter school faster. Previously, many children finishing their commitment to the Department of Children and Families faced long, logistical delays to re-register in their local public schools.
“Kids belong in school,” Anderson said. “Getting them re-enrolled as quickly as possible keeps them on track and out of trouble. We were finding kids who had to wait a month or more to resume their schooling. That didn’t make sense.”
As for school reintegration, it's important because schools are members of communiteis, Harp said.
“I understand it can be disruptive for them to take a kid back, ‘yes they educate but they’re also members of a community’ – keeping kids out is adding to or creating a problem,” Harp said.