Despite initial apprehensions, Connecticut’s move a decade ago to raise the age of teenagers in the adult criminal system proved successful in substantial ways.
Not only did the removal of 16- and 17-year-olds from the adult system actually decrease the number of juvenile court cases, but it also cost less than expected and enabled the closing in 2018 of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.
Juvenile justice reformers noted the success of the 2010 “Raise the Age” law in a gathering Monday at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. The number of new cases in juvenile court each year is 40 percent lower than a decade ago — despite adding the 16- and 17-year-olds — and the two-year rearrest rate of children on probation declined by 8 percent.
Expenses were forecast to increase by $100 million with the change, but instead decreased by $2 million (from $139 million in 2001-02 to $137 million in 2011-12) and the state was able to reallocate $39 million “to expand the number of community-based approaches that could serve a youth outside of a more expensive custodial setting, while maintaining public safety,” according to a report from the national Justice Policy Institute.
But work is not done; more reform is needed.
Legislators should look at the other end of the system and raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 12.
Today, a child as young as 7 can be arrested. Last year there were 112 court referrals of children younger than 12, mostly for misdemeanors. What is disturbing, other than the number, is that the majority were black or Hispanic. Such a disproportionate rate indicates something is wrong with the system.
Instead of children younger than 12 going into the juvenile court system, advocates want them to be handled by the Children’s Behavioral Health Services System, Youth Service Bureaus or a Juvenile Review Board in the local community.
This makes sense. The goal should be to redirect the child’s behavior and improve chances for a productive life. Such an approach cannot be a one-size-fits-all because each circumstance could be different, such as children who are homeless or have unaddressed trauma.
As state Rep. Toni Walker of New Haven said, “We do not have adequate mental health services for a child when they melt down and a parent doesn’t know what to do. The only thing they have is to call the police.”
Overall, reforms have led to fallen arrest rates and saved children from being kicked out of school and put on the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The issue of juvenile justice is complicated, with responsibility shifting from the Department of Children and Families to the judicial branch in 2018. A priority as legislators adjust the biennium budget is to maintain, not reduce, resources for children in the system.
Connecticut has been a leader in juvenile justice reform and should continue by addressing the racial disparities and raising the minimum age of arrest.