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Expert Panel Cites Urban-Suburban Inequities
Treatment Varies For Youths Charged With Crimes

January 19, 2005
By TINA A. BROWN, Courant Staff Writer

A 14-year-old white teenager who admits to stealing $1,000 worth of golf clubs in one of Connecticut's suburbs is less likely to be arrested than a 16-year-old African American youth from a city who is accused of hanging out with drug dealers, a group of experts concluded Tuesday.

While the fictitious scenario was created for the purpose of discussion, members of the state's Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparity in the Criminal Justice System said Tuesday it reflects long-standing disparities that exist in the state's handling of juveniles accused of crimes.

The disparities are a problem that is, State Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein said, "too costly" for the state to continue.

Under the written scenario, the white teenager, the son of a doctor, probably would be given an opportunity in Glastonbury to go to counseling and to do community service, said Glastonbury Police Chief Thomas Sweeney.

But in New Haven, under the written scenario, the black youth would probably be arrested if police couldn't contact his mother and ask her to come to the police station to take responsibility for him, said New Haven police Lt. Stephanie Redding. The charges would be more likely to stick, too, if, as in the written scenario, the mother is a crack addict who failed to appear in court, she said.

The scenario was written by Hartford Corporation Counsel John Rose Jr. to highlight the problem. The group said the disparity issues might be curbed if cities had as many counselors, police and school officials assigned to give troubled youths individual attention as some of the suburbs have. Too many city counselors and officials are burdened by heavy caseloads, officials said.

Later this year, the commission plans to suggest possible changes in state legislation that might bridge that gap in funding, programs and personnel so that cities can create programs geared toward helping first-time offenders before they are arrested, said Sherry Haller, executive director of The Justice Education Center.

At present, nearly 16,000 youths have some contact with the state's juvenile justice system, which costs about $100,000 annually if a youth is sent to jail. Of that number, 60 percent of those incarcerated are black and Hispanic youth and 70 percent of youths sent to the state's training school are black and Hispanic. Eighty-nine percent of juveniles detained before a trial are black and Hispanic, Millstein said, making the population of juveniles held in jails overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

Millstein said some youths are incarcerated for running away from an abusive home, or placed out of state because there aren't enough programs that offer residential counseling services in Spanish.

Foye Smith, an assistant public defender, said that often after female youths are placed in residential homes, they run away. The girls, a disproportionately large number of whom are black or Hispanic, are then charged with escaping custody. They end up in the state's prison for women or a mental hospital because there is nowhere else to put them. "Most of these children should be supervised at home," Smith said.

The fact that cities are less likely to have alternative incarceration programs has resulted in more black and Hispanic youth going to jail for minor offenses, said Redding said.

In Hartford, Rose said, the city is preparing to form a juvenile review committee, similar to one used in Glastonbury, which would consider alternative incarceration programs for youths with input from police and school officials.

Family background plays a significant role in whether a child is detained, said Superior Court Judge Jorge Simon. The white youth "would not get arrested anywhere because of his family background."

When Rose asked whether jail was the appropriate place for the boy caught hanging out with drug dealers at 3 a.m., Fran Carino, a supervisory juvenile prosecutor for the chief state's attorney's office, said that unfortunately "it's the only game in town."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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