Juvenile Justice: Rebalancing the Scales

Three bills are pending in the state legislature.

Three juvenile justice bills aim to rebalance the scales.

Ending racial disparity, decreasing recidivism, and making the system more fair and accountable all are lofty goals to be sure. But children of color more likely to enter juvenile justice system and are treated more harshly than white peers, according to the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. And so 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.

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 is to ensure the system is more cautious about detaining children before their court date,” said Mike Lawlor, undersecretary for Criminal Justice. “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 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,” said Hetherington, a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. “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.

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.”

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.

Boucher agreed the problem is complex. She also said some kids have more access to more support, more alternatives and more people working to get the kid out.

“It’s hard to say if it will work or not,” Boucher said. “Depends on how competent the judge is. Releasing just for a quota doesn't make sense. It’s particularly cruel to subject folks in poorer neighborhoods to more crime.”

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.

However, Boucher cautioned that the layoffs and budget cuts would impact juvenile facilities.

Another bill, an Act Concerning Juvenile Reentry, will help youth who had been in detention to reenter 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.”


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