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State's Juvenile System Criticized

Advocates: Changes Not Substantial

April 5, 2005
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer

Ten years after a study first showed that a disproportionate number of minority youth were being locked up in Connecticut detention centers, the state legislature has yet to take decisive action to fix the problem, critics charged Monday.

State judiciary officials and the juvenile justice experts with the Department of Children and Families say they are developing alternatives to incarceration for all juveniles.

But the bottom line hasn't changed, critics and advocates said during a public hearing before the state's judiciary committee.

Minority kids still outnumber white kids 3 to 1 in Connecticut detention halls even though they account for less than 1 in 4 kids in the general population, according to the latest statistics.

The state locks up more kids - and more minority kids in particular - than any other state in New England, according to a report issued by the New England Juvenile Defender Center in Boston two years ago.

"Connecticut must take this problem even more seriously ... in order to break the cycle that will make today's minority juvenile offender tomorrow's [adult] inmate," said Maureen Knight-Price, executive director of Community Partners in Action, formerly the Connecticut Prison Association.

Price was one of several advocates who testified in support of a proposed bill that lays out aggressive steps to address the problem over the next several years.

The bill calls for the creation of a "mapping" system through which police, DCF and court authorities could identify and monitor juvenile arrests by neighborhood, race and ethnicity. That information would then be compared to the outcome of those juveniles' cases (detention vs. probation) to see whether there are sufficient support services in place to help juveniles steer clear of trouble.

By doing so, supporters say, state and local officials can pinpoint hot spots for juvenile crime and push for more support in areas that are lacking. Support services can range from mentoring and truancy reduction programs to peer mediation, respite services and intensive in-home family counseling.

The bill also calls for state and local officials to work together to develop a clear set of objective criteria authorities can use in determining what to do with a troubled youngster. Having one objective set of guidelines will reduce the chances of some children being treated differently than others because of their ethnicity or race, supporters say.

At the very least, the bill calls for the legislature to set aside funds to allow some of the key measures in the bill to be tried on a pilot basis in a large urban area.

State Rep. William R. Dyson, D-New Haven, made it very clear he shared the advocates' concerns.

"I'm sick and tired of everyone talking about somebody being dangerous and inevitably they are talking about someone who is black," Dyson said. "I have a problem with the issue of disparity ... and somewhere along the way that has to be stopped."

State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, agreed with advocates that something must be done and said this year might be the year to do it. Walker said there is growing bipartisan support to expand community-based programs to keep kids out of detention and costly residential programs.

Officials from the state judicial branch and DCF said they too supported the bill, at least in concept. But they said they would prefer to continue developing programs on their own without being confined by the strict restraints imposed in the bill if it became a law.

"Codifying practices would remove the branch's ability to adapt to changing needs," said Deborah Fuller, a judicial branch spokeswoman. "A statutory requirement of joint development ... will make the process more cumbersome."

Fuller said she is also concerned about the bill's cost. Mapping, tracking and providing intense mentoring programs come with a cost. Neither Fuller nor advocates of the legislation could provide a definitive estimate Monday on how much such programs would cost in Connecticut. However, a similar bill failed in committee last year because of the expected high cost.

The mapping concept is not new. Other states, such as California, have used mapping successfully to target troubled areas.

Santa Cruz County in California reduced the number of Latinos in detention from 64 percent to 46 percent since officials there started mapping and developing alternative, culturally sensitive programs for juveniles in 1998. Approximately one-third of the county's juvenile population age 10 to 17 is Latino.

States have been compelled to address minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system since 1992, when Congress required states to address the issue as part of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. States risked losing federal funding for juvenile justice programs if they failed to act.

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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