OP-ED: How One State Turned Around Its Juvenile Justice System

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Julie Revas-edit2Fewer than 15 years ago, Connecticut’s network of contracted programs to rehabilitate juvenile offenders was in jeopardy. The programs were not producing good enough results to justify their cost. And yet, in the past five years, there has been a 40 percent decrease in arrests. So, how did Connecticut turn the tide?

To answer that question, a little history is in order. Funds for juvenile programs were first appropriated in the mid-1990s. Lacking the robust scientific literature that exists today, state officials settled on programs they believed would help kids make positive changes. Soon, input from the Connecticut Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division (CSSD) and evidence gleaned from a few, small initial studies showed that the programs were not producing the anticipated results. As a result, CSSD established a Center for Best Practices in 2001 so that it could propose small, incremental changes to improve the network and its outcomes.

The sky fell in 2002 with the issuance of a study by the Connecticut Policy and Economic Council (CPEC). Commissioned by the state legislature, the study was designed to assess the return on taxpayer dollars from juvenile justice programs. Instead, the CPEC study showed that statistically, recidivism rates among juveniles in the contracted programs were significantly higher than that of a matched sample with no programming. There were concerns about the study’s methodology, but the report also created an opportunity that the state seized. Services in most of the programs had been delivered in congregate-care settings, and referral was based on the offense committed rather than risk of recidivism. As the theory went, “contagion” was corrupting the lower-risk children.

CSSD adopted the Risk/Need/Responsivity principle and applied that logic to client management, as well as program administration. It opted to first modify services by changing programming for the highest-risk juveniles. Existing program models were discontinued, and in nine months, those dollars were reinvested in Multisystemic Therapy (MST) statewide. This therapy is based on the principle of treating children squarely in the context of their families and drawing in other community resources to effect and sustain change.

Since 2003, when the first 15 MST teams were established for CSSD, other important reforms occurred in Connecticut. For example, legislation adopted a decade ago prohibited the detention of status offenders and mandated the development of Family Support Centers (FSCs). The centers were built on similar principles as MST in that they involved both the family and community in treating the child.

More recently, Connecticut changed an antiquated policy that processed 16- and 17-year-olds through adult court. Now they fall within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court system. While this “Raise the Age” reform was expected to double juvenile court intake, in fact intakes are lower.

Among the significant developments that have gotten the state this far:

  • Connecticut invested in juvenile probation officers and boasts some of the lowest officer/client ratios in the country. Officers are also afforded tremendous training in motivational interviewing, family engagement, adolescent development and more.
  • A Connecticut-specific risk/needs assessment instrument was created, normed and validated, and is regularly updated and refined, as is the process the assessment tool is used with.
  • An automated case plan helps focus officers and clients alike on specific goals and ensures appropriate treatment.
  • Data systems were developed to carefully monitor outcomes.
  • In subscribing to the Result-Based Accountability tenets, we ask and answer quantitatively on a quarterly basis: How much is being done, how well is it being done and is anyone better off?

Of course, there’s much more to it than that. A strong and collaborative advocate community has tirelessly nudged the judicial branch to continue setting the bar higher. Partnership with other state agencies helped establish efficiencies that would have otherwise been unachievable. We partnered with local and state educational systems, where so many juvenile arrests had occurred, to develop alternatives to arrest.

In fact, with the consent of their attorneys, juvenile probation supervisors can now divert from the court system juveniles with behaviors that, while untoward, are not best managed in the judicial system. Finally, we have availed ourselves of technical assistance from numerous institutions, universities and nationally known and respected consultants.

Today, nearly half the contracted juvenile programs in Connecticut are evidence-based. The other half are locally conceived, gender-responsive programs that are underpinned by the same research and theoretical foundations of MST and other evidence-based programs. There are clinical coordinators in each juvenile-court location, helping with the most complex client needs and case dispositions. We have recently engaged providers to address trauma in our clients, recognizing that kids with repeated distressing life experiences are over-represented in our system and need help to heal.

While we have made enormous improvements over the past several years, there is always room for improvement when it comes to juvenile justice. We continue to evaluate the effectiveness of our programs and continue to look for ways to reduce the disproportionate number of minorities in our juvenile justice system.

Julie Revaz, MSW, is the manager of administrative services II, Judicial Branch, state of Connecticut, Court Support Services Division.

6 thoughts on “OP-ED: How One State Turned Around Its Juvenile Justice System

  1. Connecticut should serve as an example to states considering juvenile justice reform – and those yet to consider it. They have utilized evidence-based practices on a large scale and have reduced juvenile crime while saving money.

  2. Great article, Julie! It was a blast working with you back in ‘the early days’ to get the whole MST thing up-and-running (10 years ago!…wow). I am thrilled to see the Center, CSSD, the kids and families you serve, and the whole state of Connecticut experience such great success over the past decade… well done!

  3. Pingback: Examining the Keys to Success for Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice System | Reclaiming Futures

  4. I heard that some people are unable to access recordings of their cases. I added the recordings to my designation of record and this is how I got a review that although the recording device was working, the judge purposely avoided recording the evidence.

    The reality of the hearing was that the Judge didn’t like the Court appointed Evaluator’s opinion and excluded it. She then created a made-up ruling. She then ordered that this ruling part be transcribed. In appeals when only the ruling part is submitted it is automatically considered valid.

    I’m fighting so ruling part isn’t submitted. I’ve already claimed chain-fraud to the appeals court.

    The Court appointed Evaluator refused to see me until between 4-5 on the day before the hearing. The natural response for a party is to ask for a review based on surprise. This is one of those situations where a judge can impose attorney fees on the poorer party on behalf of the wealthier party. In preparation Judge Angela Arkin appointed two attorneys to my husband – although this is an administrative Guardian ad Litem hearing and he has nothing to do with it.

    The courts recently added Guardian ad Litems to family courts. It contradicts the constitution in terms of conflict-free representation (amendment six). To resolve this the Supreme Court declared that attorneys are the self-regulating guardians of justice, not subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct.

    Problem is – the constitution itself defined conflict-free as separation of authorities – not totalitarianism.

    So I can hope for justice – but can I expect it? Will the Supreme Court accept my argument of chain fraud based on the record? I was pro-se to begin with so there is some record to work with.

    Will the Supreme Court agree that there is no function for GALs in family court? If a person needs support – their health insurance can help. If the court so likes, it can create a separate entity to support emotionally unstable people – just like the Victims Reparation Boards are or victims of violent crimes. This is the correct way to deal with the situation – not a GAL.

    Courts have complete control – and it is pointless to say that a GAL is needed for this or that purpose for which the courts have already established mechanisms. What the Supreme Court is likely to do is do away with some of these mechanisms to prove they need a GAL.

    In terms of children – the GAL has to claim that the parent is harmful to the child. To keep the child silent they will exercise extreme cruelty. I believe one child killed themselves already.

  5. Connecticut should serve as a model for juvenile justice reform in other states. They took an honest look at their programs and concluded they wanted to do better. They wisely consulted the research and implanted the programs that met their needs. Consequently, they have reduced juvenile crime and have done it at a tremendous cost savings to the state.