Author of Report Recaps Connecticut’s Long Road to Juvenile Justice Reform

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Razor wire and surveillance cameras surround the grounds at State of Connecticut Superior Court for Juvenile Matters and Detention Center in New Haven Conn., where detainees were once put in isolation before new laws were enacted. (Robert Stolarik for JJIE)

UPDATED: Large-scale abuses in Connecticut’s juvenile justice system drove a push for reform that rallied advocates and spurred politicians into action; according to the author of an exhaustive report on the history of the juvenile justice system detailing the strides the state has made over the last decade.

“Connecticut had a terrible system 20 years ago,” said author Richard Mendel. “They’ve made a ton of changes around a ton of different areas … producing impressive improvements on a wide range of indicators.”

In 1993, the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit about the neglect, excessive punishment and unconstitutional practices in the system. The case was named after Emily J., a 13-year-old girl with a homeless mother and absent father.

Skipping school landed her in a detention center, where she spent months. At the time, about 3,000 juveniles were held in detention centers across the state, most charged with misdemeanors or status offenses such as truancy.

“But since then,” said Mendel, “the state has fundamentally transformed its approach to juvenile justice — sharply reducing confinement, investing in evidence-based alternative programs that work with kids and families at home, raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction, and re-inventing its approach to status offenders, among other things.”

Over the last decade, reforms have focused on removing children from adult facilities, reducing the number of kids in custody and keeping them with their families.

Mendel stressed the success in Connecticut was not sparked primarily by abuses, but because of a variety of factors. These included the creation of the Juvenile Justice Alliance, embracing evidence-based and data-driven approaches within the state government, a transformative strategic planning process that took place between 2004 and 2006 — that worked to forge what he described as a “durable consensus for progressive reform” — support from foundations, including Tow, and an “an unusually constructive litigation process.”

Policy makers and advocates have also worked to change zero-tolerance policies in schools and to convince the schools that dealing with minor offenses in-house is the most productive way to keep kids in school and out of facilities — and ultimately to help the offenders and the community. Still, there is progress to be made.

“They haven’t moved the dial — or we don’t know if they’ve moved the dial — because they haven’t actually counted how many kids were arrested in school until recently,” said Mendel.

He also believes that Connecticut is leading the pack and is a good example for other states to follow.

“Connecticut has taken on so many of the deep challenges, he said. “If it’s not the best, it’s definitely one of the best.”

In an later email, Mendel added, “Unlike other states that have substantially reduced juvenile incarceration in recent years, Connecticut has reinvested virtually all of the money saved into high quality non-residential treatment and services for youth in the community – with tremendous benefits for youth and for public safety. Elsewhere around the nation, states are using all or most of the money saved through juvenile de-incarceration to trim budget deficits or fund other priorities.”

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