Two reports released this week establish Connecticut as a national leader in the trend to end the costly and counterproductive reliance on incarceration for youthful offenders.
A Kids Count Data Snapshot released on Wednesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation documented a 41 percent drop in the juvenile confinement rate nationwide from 1997 to 2010, with the most rapid declines occurring since 2006.
This shift away from confinement is both welcome and appropriate, given overwhelming evidence that juvenile corrections facilities are exorbitant to operate, often put youths at risk for injury and abuse, and have poor track records in reducing recidivism and stimulating positive youth development. Although incarceration may be required for youths who commit serious violent crimes, most youths removed from their homes by delinquency courts across the nation are not the kinds of serious offenders who pose imminent risks to public safety.
The Data Snapshot finds that Connecticut ranked second in the nation, reducing its juvenile confinement rate by 65 percent from 1997 to 2010. This reduction, however, is only one part of the good news for Connecticut . A compelling new report from the Justice Policy Institute documents how Connecticut fundamentally transformed its juvenile justice system over the past decade, not just reducing facility populations, but achieving impressive progress across a wide range of juvenile justice challenges. The report, "Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut: How Collaboration and Commitment Have Improved Public Safety and Outcomes for Youth," shows that the state has:
•Expanded its investment in family-focused adolescent treatment programs with proven success in reducing problem behaviors.
•Substantially improved conditions for youths in custody, eliminating overcrowding, enhancing safety, ending punitive disciplinary practices and substantially improving education and mental health treatment.
•Completely overhauled its approach to youths referred to court for behaviors like running away or truancy by prohibiting locked detention and creating a network of community services for these youths outside the formal court system.
•Raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, ending its status as one of three states that treated all 16 and 17 year-olds as adults in the justice system.
•Revised laws and forged new partnerships to begin reducing arrests at school for minor misbehavior best handled outside of court.
Best of all, Connecticut's decreased reliance on youth confinement has neither sparked any increase in juvenile crime nor increased costs to taxpayers. Among youths 15 and under (the state's traditional juvenile population), total arrests fell 48 percent from 2002 to 2011, and serious violent crime arrests fell 51 percent. And, subsequent to the state's raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction, total arrests and serious violent crime arrests both fell considerably among 16-year-olds.
After adjusting for inflation, the two agencies that administer Connecticut's juvenile justice system — the Department of Children and Families and the Judicial Branch's Court Support Services Division — spent $2 million less on juvenile programs and facilities in the fiscal year ending in June 2012 than they had 10 years earlier.
But perhaps the most impressive element of Connecticut's reform efforts is the new consensus for change in juvenile justice among leaders across the state, including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation administrators, facility operators, families and advocates. This consensus is grounded in the principles that adolescents are different than adults and deserve a separate, less punitive, and more therapeutic justice system; and that the juvenile justice system often succeeds best with youths when it does the least — diverting as many children as possible from arrest and formal court involvement, keeping them in school and committing children to residential custody only as a last resort.
There is no doubt that, as the report notes, "Connecticut's system today is far and away more successful, more humane and more cost-effective than it was 10 or 20 years ago." Other states would do well to take note.
Bart Lubow is director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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