BOTH SIDES: WHERE 16-, 17-YEAR-OLD OFFENDERS BELONG
Treatment, Recidivism Key Issues
April 6, 2007
By KATIE MELONE, Courant Staff Writer
The state legislature is considering a proposal to allow16- and 17-year-olds charged with less serious crimes to be treated as juveniles in the criminal justice system.
Criminal cases of children under 16 are handled by juvenile courts. Sixteen and 17-year-olds are eligible for youthful offender status, which affords the teenagers certain protections -- especially privacy -- that adults don't enjoy in the criminal courts. But some advocates say that youthful offender status still fails to address the teens' needs because their cases are handled in a system designed for adults, and sentences can be served in Department of Correction facilities.
"This proposal alarms Connecticut police chiefs because 16- and 17-year-olds commit more than their share of adult crime - 10.5 percent in the 2005-2006 fiscal year.
Adding those teens to the juvenile court system, juvenile shelters, and detention facilities, which are already at capacity, will overwhelm the system, depriving children under 16 of needed services. Younger detainees would be subjected to the predations of older teens. Caseloads of juvenile review boards would also climb.
The proposal will also further complicate investigative work, given restrictive procedures governing police interviews of juveniles. Juveniles are prohibited from giving a statement unless a parent is present and waives the teen's rights, and juveniles cannot be held within sight or sound of adults in custody.
The bill proposes a policy council to iron out key issues after the bill is passed. Forgive my skepticism, but I want to see the goods before I buy.
For example, will police have to call a parent to the scene of an accident so an officer can question a 16-year-old witness about it? Can we give you an accident report if a 17-year-old driver hit your car?
Juvenile cases are time-consuming, labor-intensive, and costly; adding more is bad news for short-handed police departments and strapped taxpayers. The bill provides funding for more judges and other employees, like probation officers, but not for prosecutors or police to deal with the added burden of 16- and 17-year-olds in juvenile justice system. Even without added funding for law enforcement, the cost will be frightful - a 2003-2004 study estimated the cost at $84 million.
Is the benefit worth the cost? The proponents' noblest goal is bolstering juvenile services -like psychological evaluations and counseling, drug testing, substance abuse treatment - for 16-and 17-year-olds. The millions to be spent re-arranging the legal system could instead provide ample services to those teenagers without changing their legal status."
- James Strillacci, West Hartford police chief and legislative co-chairman of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association
"Connecticut is one of only three states in the nation that treat all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. The rationale for this policy is that it will deter crime. I have yet, however, to see anyone present a shred of evidence that it does. In reality, treating juveniles as adults encourages crime.
In a study of 2,738 Florida juveniles, Northeastern University researcher Donna Bishop found that those transferred to adult court were more likely to re-offend than those who remained in the juvenile system. They also re-offended earlier than their peers and were more likely to escalate to violent crime.
Our juvenile justice system is designed on the principle that kids' habits and character are still developing, making adolescence a more conducive time to try rehabilitation than adulthood. The adult system, however, emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation. In a very real way, when we send children to adult prisons we are saying, "We have given up on you."
Do not misunderstand: I would not for a moment suggest that we should not hold minors responsible for their crimes simply because of their youth. The Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance supports models that call for offenders to make restitution to victims of crime.
Most juveniles enter the system before they have committed serious crimes. More than 70 percent of the 16- and 17-year-olds that our state prosecutes as adults are accused of minor, nonviolent crimes. This is clearly a golden opportunity to intercede before their delinquency progresses. The small minority of youths who commit serious crimes, A and B felonies, would continue to be treated as adults under legislation currently before the General Assembly.
It is important to remember that we are only talking about making this change for nonviolent kids. Much of the support for treating teens as adults comes from fears of so-called "super predators."