This story is part of a series on efforts to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Connecticut, New York and North Carolina.
By 2005, 17-year-old David Burgos had been in and out of group homes in Connecticut for years. He was bipolar and had ADHD, and his frequent outbursts were too much for his mother to handle.
At 16, because he was legally considered an adult, he was sent to Manson Youth Institute, an adult prison for offenders under age 21, for weapons charges stemming from a fight he had with his older brother. After a month, he was released on parole.
But because he was considered an adult, he was legally able to refuse the services that were a condition of his release, and he was sent back to Manson in March of 2005 for violating his parole.
On July 24, 2005, he fashioned a noose from a bedsheet and hung himself in his cell.
“Why do we have to wait until there is a crisis?” David’s mother, Diana Gonzalez, asked a year later, standing on the floor of the Connecticut House of Representatives as she testified on behalf of raising the age of criminal responsibility in the state from 16 to 18.
“Why do we wait for a tragedy?” she asked the legislators. “Why does someone like my son have to die before we make a change we know is right?”
Juvenile justice advocates had been working behind the scenes to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Connecticut to 18 before Burgos’s death, but they sprang into visible action after the tragedy. Their fight to transform Connecticut from one of the only three states in the nation to prosecute 16-year-olds as adults to one of the leaders in juvenile justice reform wasn’t easy, but advocates say it provides a model for the two states left — North Carolina and New York — as they navigate if, and how, to make the change.
Abby Anderson, the executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, who spearheaded the campaign, said the process was a long one, and started with convincing enough people to get onboard.
“It wasn’t like people weren’t looking at it or aware of it as an issue,” Anderson said, “but it really seemed to some folks as an insurmountable goal — that it’s too big, it’s just never gonna happen.”
The bill was championed in the state Senate by Toni Harp, now the mayor of New Haven. Harp said she knew early on in the process that the bill was important to her both as a parent and as a legislator.
When not serving in the legislature, state Rep. Toni Walker, who championed the bill in the state house, is an assistant principal at New Haven Adult Education Center, which helps people 17 and older get their diplomas or GEDs. She said she’d seen the effect of the policies on the students at her school.
“I saw a lot of imbalances in sentencing that was happening with kids that were 16 and older,” Walker said. “And I thought, how can you think a 16-year-old is an adult?”
Clearing the Hurdles
Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance began a targeted media campaign after Burgos’s death. They touted scientific studies that showed that young people’s brains continue to develop well into their 20s, and therefore children’s actions shouldn’t be treated the same as those of adults. They released a 12-minute educational video, and branded the effort as “Raise the Age” — which Anderson said included a lot of conversations with Connecticut residents who were unaware of the current law.
“We made a lot of buttons and stickers,” Anderson said. “Then people would say, ‘Raise the age? Raise what age? The drinking age?’” After explaining the basics of their campaign, especially that there would still be a clause for kids who’ve committed serious crimes like murder to be treated as adults, she said, “they would say, ‘Oh. OK. I’m cool with that.’”
In June 2006, a “Planning and Implementation” committee was created to explore exactly how the state would make the change. The main hurdle for advocates and supporters was, of course, the money.
Walker said the previous efforts to explore raising the age had scared people off due to the high-figure cost estimates of putting the legislation into action — corrections and police officials were worried they’d have to build a lot of new infrastructure to accommodate the change.
“Several times before, the state had tried to raise the age, but each time the state said it would cost $100 million,” Walker said. “I said, why? And I looked through the reports and saw there were no justifications for these dollar amounts.”
This time around, they got a nonpartisan cost analysis and worked the numbers through the implementation committee, resulting in a more realistic estimate. Anderson said the budget, especially initially, would need to reflect the big changes that were being made, but that the cost would be recouped down the line by lowering recidivism and reducing jail populations.
“This wasn’t gonna be an unfunded mandate,” Anderson said. “We’re gonna need more resources, bigger budgets. One of the differences between adult and juvenile systems is that the juvenile system has programs” like mental health and education services, she said.
A Hartford Courant piece that ran shortly after Burgos’s death reported Burgos — whose signs of mental illness began appearing in elementary school — only really thrived at Riverview Hospital, a long-term home for children with serious mental illness, where the “highly structured, secure therapeutic environment” benefitted him. A week before his death, he was transferred back to Riverview, but there were no open beds for him. Instead, they placed him in the restrictive housing unit at Manson, where he died.
Diana Gonzalez, Burgos’s mother, in her powerful testimony to the Legislature in 2006, was able to address the argument that raising the age would simply cost too much.
“I’m here today to tell you that it isn’t about the money. It’s about doing the right thing. Do we have the money to do the right thing? We do. We spend the money now, we are just spending the money that we have in the wrong way,” Gonzalez said.
Another main concern was voiced by the police department, which feared large costs and confusion in implementing the new policies.
“The police chiefs and prosecutors, they were some of the biggest naysayers that we had going in,” Walker said.
Some important concessions to the police department — including allowing interrogation of 16-year-olds without an adult present and releasing them on their own on a promise to reappear if the police weren’t able to reach their parents — were instrumental in moving the process forward.
When the planning committee gathered, all the stakeholders were present and able to voice their concerns — including the corrections officers, cops, advocates and parents of children who were affected by the old laws. Because of this, by the time the committee gave its recommendations to the Legislature, all sides were already in agreement.
“It doesn’t mean there weren’t legislative fights,” Anderson said, “but it made it easier because there was that pre-work that had been done.”
The Policies in Action
In the end, budgetary concerns nearly derailed the bill’s passage. In 2007 the bill was removed from the budget, but Harp, who was chair of the appropriations committee, was able to add it back in. In 2009, the governor proposed to delay the bill due to the financial crisis. Eventually, a compromise was achieved and 16-year-olds were added back into the juvenile system in 2010, with the 17-year-olds being added back in two years later.
Now that Raise the Age has been fully implemented, Connecticut is being touted as a success story and a potential model for New York and North Carolina, the only two states left in the union that treat 16-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system.
Jessica Sandoval, the vice president of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national organization that was involved in the Connecticut campaign and is pushing for reform in New York and North Carolina, said that in a lot of ways Connecticut’s process was ideal.
“The way the legislation was written, people were mandated to come to the table,” Sandoval said. “Some of the other states have said, ‘If Raise the Age were to happen,’ and in Connecticut, it was not a question of if, but how and when, Raise the Age would happen.”
Sandoval said that “every state is different, operates differently, has a different climate,” but she said that Connecticut’s successful campaign “is a great model.”
Data show that the overall juvenile court intake has decreased in Connecticut, even with the addition of 16- and 17-year-olds, and that, adjusted for inflation, the state is paying a little less now on its juvenile system than prior to the program’s start.
“The thing what's really nice is that there’s pretty much universal agreement that it worked,” Anderson said, adding that her group, the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, is still working to make sure the reforms continue to be funded and new problems addressed.
Walker said that although raising the age was a success, it doesn’t mean there aren’t still problems to be dealt with, including making sure the juvenile programs that have been shown to work are still being funded.
“You think you’ve overcome the problems because you’ve passed the law and everyone should go skipping toward the sunset,” Walker said, “but it didn’t work that way.”