One of the greatest obstacles to reforming the juvenile justice system is the fear that “going soft” on juvenile crime will pose a threat to public safety, either by setting youthful marauders loose upon a defenseless public or by removing the supposed deterrent effect of harsh and mandatory punishments. A second obstacle is the belief that any alternative to the current system of punishment and confinement will cost more, a particularly unwelcome proposition at a time when many states and communities are experiencing severe budget shortfalls.
A new report from the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., and funded by the Tow Foundation, provides evidence contradicting the assumptions behind both objections to reform. “Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut: How Collaboration and Commitment Have Improved Public Safety and Outcomes for Youth” details a series of reforms in the Connecticut juvenile justice system since the 1990s, and the positive changes observed in the state since those reforms were instituted.
In the report, author Richard Mendel states that the Connecticut juvenile justice system today is “far and away more successful, more humane, and more cost-effective than it was 10 or 20 years ago” and attributes these changes largely to the state’s willingness to re-invent its system, based on “the growing body of knowledge about youth development, adolescent brain research and delinquency.”
The most significant of these changes include ending the criminalization of status offenses (e.g., truancy, running away), ceasing to treat 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults, building a system of community alternatives to confinement and sharply reducing the number of juveniles sentenced to confinement. Connecticut also developed programs to address the specific needs of girls in confinement, to address racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, and to reduce school-based arrests and out-of-school detentions.
The number of juveniles in residential placement in Connecticut dropped almost 70 percent from 2000 to 2011, a particularly impressive result given that 16-year-olds became part of the juvenile system beginning in 2010. Despite removal of the threat of being tried as an adult and sentenced to an adult prison, total arrests and arrests for serious violent crimes were both lower, by 35 percent and 26 percent respectively, in 2011 than in 2009.
Contrary to fears that a more humane juvenile justice system would lead to increased crime, Connecticut experienced a 48.7 percent reduction in juvenile (age 15 and younger) arrests from 2001 to 2011, and a 46.9 percent reduction in juvenile arrests for violent crimes. Although juvenile crime was also decreasing nationwide during this period, Connecticut’s reductions were substantially greater than the national average of 29.3 percent for all juvenile arrests and 30.7 percent for violent juvenile arrests. Even more impressive, juvenile arrests for violent crime (age 15 and under) in Connecticut fell 65 percent from 2006 (the year a number of reforms were instituted) to 2011.
Like many states, in the 1990s and early 2000s Connecticut referred many juvenile status offenders to court (more than 4,000 in 2000 alone), and some of them ended up in state custody after violating probation rules. In 2007, the state instituted two key reforms regarding status offenders: A new law took effect prohibiting juveniles from being detained or placed in custody solely for violating probation or disobeying a judge’s order, and a network of Family Support Centers was created to provide services for status offenders and their families. In 2008-2009, following these reforms, no young people were detained for status offenses, as compared to 493 detained in 2006-2007. In addition, only 4.5 percent of status offense referrals were formally processed in court in 2010 and 2011, as compared to 50 percent in 2006.
After correcting for inflation, Connecticut spent slightly less on juvenile justice in fiscal year 2011-12 than in fiscal year 2001-2002. The state spent $111 million on juvenile justice in 2001-2002, equivalent to $139 million in 2011, while in 2011-2012 it spent $137 million.
The major factor in this reduction was the drop in confinement and the substitution of community-based programs: for instance a 6-month confinement at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School costs approximately $134,000, while a full course of community-based treatment generally costs $10,000 or less.
The Tow Foundation is a funder of the JJIE.