Fewer 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.