On Independence Day, a Reminder That the People Still Have Power

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Connecticut just made a major policy change that will protect kids and reduce crime. You probably didn’t notice. That’s understandable. The Raise the Age campaign that pushed for this legislation didn’t run television commercials or send out mailers. We couldn’t afford them.

The reform helped 16- and 17-year-olds in trouble with the law. These kids tend to be poor, not the sort to bankroll an ad campaign. They certainly are not in a position to make large campaign contributions to the people deciding their fate.

When Raise the Age started, Connecticut was one of only three states prosecuting 16-year-olds as adults, though we know kids charged as adults are more likely to reoffend and are at high risk of suicide and abuse in adult prisons. In 2010, we got 16-year-olds returned to the juvenile system. As of July 1, 2012, most 17-year-olds are also considered juveniles in Connecticut. Those few accused of serious crimes will still be treated as adults, as is the case with 16-year-olds.

Connecticut’s Raise the Age campaign was so successful that those of us who worked on it are invited to speak around the country about our tactics. Tactics seems too sophisticated a term to describe what we did. Our small, committed band of funders basically supported a staff of three. We partnered with organizations and agencies that championed the rights of children. We encouraged families to tell their stories. We sat on a lot of folding chairs and drank a lot of tea. We came out of these community meetings with allies who wrote their state representatives. The families showed remarkable courage, but, for most of us, the only resource we absolutely needed to do this work was persistence. Taken one by one, we weren’t that powerful. Together, we were a force.

That’s pretty much how I was raised to believe democracy functions: People who care passionately about something convince their fellow citizens that the cause matters. When enough people stand behind an idea, our representative government takes notice.

We built a case using research – not hype – to show how getting kids out of the adult system would lower recidivism. We made that case to legislators who’d demonstrated a strong commitment to at-risk kids and social justice. We didn’t offer them contributions or huge voting blocs, just good reasons why raising the age could help their communities and the state. They listened and acted.

Election season can make it hard to believe everything you learned in high school civics class. Campaign overload has been afflicting this country for months from the presidential race alone, not to mention the various other national, state and local contests. Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are expected to exceed the $740 million the Obama campaign spent in 2008. With big money playing such a critical role in elections, Americans fear that our government becomes beholden to special interests.

No corporation or group of people stood to profit from Raise the Age. But in sticking up for the rights of at-risk kids, we all benefitted. Getting kids out of the adult system is making it easier for the state to proceed with closing prisons. It is preventing crime, because we know that kids who go through the mandated rehabilitative programs of the juvenile system are less likely to reoffend.

Certainly a single state legislative victory by a grassroots organization does not negate what’s happening to our public life on a grand scale. It does, however, demonstrate that it’s possible still for ordinary people to make change. Everything you learned in high school civics class isn’t necessarily true all the time. But we can fight to make it true some of the time.

I’m celebrating this week. I’m celebrating a reform that puts kids on a much better path to becoming productive citizens and I’m also celebrating Independence Day. In my mind, the two are linked. Only in a democracy, could the Raise the Age campaign have succeeded. Of course there are thousands more such reforms we must undertake to make our society more just and well ordered and our government more efficient. My hope is that we do not adopt a defeatist attitude toward this work. No one should ever say, “Oh, what can I do without a large war chest of cash?”

I’ll tell you what you can do. You can win.


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