A Grown-Up Approach to Juvenile Justice Reform

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Connecticut’s juvenile justice system has seen tremendous reform in the past 10 years. As a new report by the Justice Policy Institute points out, we’ve diverted kids from the juvenile system, provided better services for those inside it and kept kids out of the adult system.

These reforms have been accompanied by a declining youth crime rate and a decreasing burden on taxpayers. So many people deserve credit for these advances, including enlightened public officials, inspired funders and tenacious advocates. But what made them so successful?

They acted like grown ups.

Teenagers often make decisions impulsively on the basis of strong emotions without thinking through the consequences of their choices. Unfortunately, adults sometimes make decisions in the same way, notably when it comes to crime and delinquency. That’s why “get tough on crime” policies that have no effect on public safety – or a negative effect – are so often popular.

Everyone involved in system reform in my state informed their work with data and a thorough grounding in best practices. It wasn’t acceptable to say things like, “Well, everybody knows … “ We were passionate policy wonks, all right, but passionate policy wonks with spreadsheets and a sometimes annoying tendency to question each other’s assumptions. That process produced a very strong case for reform, so strong that even the “non-wonk” world embraced it.

One of the prime examples was our Raise the Age campaign. Connecticut was one of only three states that set the age of adult criminal responsibility at 16. While that law was an artifact of an earlier time, many states around the country spent the 1990s lowering their age of juvenile jurisdiction in response to theorists who spoke of an upcoming wave of young “superpredators.”

I call these academics theorists rather than scientists because scientists carefully draw conclusions from data. In this case, data was cavalierly extrapolated. They acted without thinking through the consequences of their decisions. They never had to face those consequences. Minors branded with adult records, and endangered in adult prisons, did.

Methodically, logically, those of us working on Raise the Age proved to legislators and the public that kids handled in the juvenile system were less likely to reoffend or to escalate into violence. Raising the age would make communities safer and save taxpayers the cost of serial incarceration. Across all the reforms that have marked the past 10 years, a data-based approach that showed the public “what’s in it for me” drove change.

While I am in awe of the good work that my colleagues did in Connecticut, we are by no means done. The two areas in particular that keep me up at night are disproportionate minority contact (DMC) and student arrests. It’s no coincidence these areas where progress lags so badly arouse strong emotions that can make it difficult to have an adult conversation.

Though we are proud that fewer kids are entering the juvenile justice system, the state’s own data show that children of color still enter the system at a higher rate and are treated more harshly. Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee has worked hard to reverse this. It remains a challenge, however, to convince people that DMC even exists.

We’ve all heard the pushback.

“It’s not race: it’s socioeconomic status.” Wrong. Connecticut looked at income averages by zip codes. Though poverty had an impact on treatment, it could not explain all the racial disproportionality.

“Minority kids commit more serious crimes.” Wrong. Self-reported behavior studies show that nationally kids of all races behave quite similarly.

“It’s because minority kids live in cities, where crime rates are higher.” Wrong. Connecticut data shows that DMC is actually worse in the suburbs.

Presenting these facts does not seem to move the public. Some research suggests that bringing up DMC actually makes people less sympathetic to juvenile justice reform.

I’m similarly concerned about student arrests. Connecticut has been making progress on reducing student arrests. Our judicial branch refuses to handle cases based solely on minor school rule infractions. A number of districts have entered into memorandums of agreement with police departments to define their respective roles and make arrest a rare measure in schools.

Of course, everything changed with the school massacre in Sandy Hook. Around the country there is a call for increased policing in schools. That call is particularly fraught here in Connecticut.

We know that a police presence in school is not proven to keep students safe and comes with a risk of criminalizing kids. We have tried to balance this position with an insistence that if communities do station police in schools they at least train them in child development and clearly define their roles. It remains to be seen how much influence we will have in the matter. With schools traditionally being such a large feeder of the juvenile justice system, I worry that some of the great numbers we see in the JPI report may creep back up.

So what do we do? Believe me: If I had an easy solution to DMC and student arrests, I would have shared it long before now. In Connecticut and around the country, there is hard work to be done. Perhaps that makes this an ideal time for JPI to release its summary of achievements in my state. We need a reminder that the hard work pays off.

If 15 years ago someone had said that multiple states would be raising their age of juvenile jurisdiction while many others put sane restrictions on transfer laws, it would have seemed like wild optimism.

Yet that’s exactly what happened. And it happened because we kept applying facts to the problem. Emotion is often more powerful than rational argument in the moment. But it has much less of a shelf life. I believe that the same data-driven approach that impacted the juvenile justice reforms of the last decade will bring us success as we battle our most intractable challenges.

So after taking a moment to celebrate the wonderful progress we’ve seen in Connecticut, it’s time to get back to work.

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