The alleged involvement of 13- and 14-year-olds in the senseless murder of a young college student in New York City last month is a heartbreaking reminder that, despite a decade of monumental youth justice reforms, much work remains to help and heal our most troubled children.
It’s pretty to believe that if one only puts in the time, he can save a wayward child. It doesn’t always work out that way. The troubled boy I mentored for 6½ years, through a Norwalk, Conn., school volunteer program, fired me last May.
Leona Godfrey was sitting down to dinner at a TGI Fridays in Orange, Connecticut, in December 2013 when she glanced at a television and saw her little brother’s name on the local news. Davon Eldemire had tried to rob a small grocery store, shooting and injuring the owner. “I was devastated,” Godfrey recalled. “What was he thinking? I couldn’t eat.”
On Saturday, Newtown, Conn. officials released the names of the 20 children and six adults slain in last Friday’s shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School. According to initial reports, all of the children killed in the attack were between 6 or 7 years old. State police say 12 of the young victims were female and eight were boys. All six of the slain adults were female.
As with most natural disasters, the attention of the media was initially centered on the havoc wrecked by Hurricane Sandy. We were drawn to its most dramatic images – the dangling crane at the construction site of a luxury high-rise in Midtown Manhattan; the New York City building whose façade collapsed, resembling the open side of a dollhouse; the half-submerged roller coaster, all that remained of an amusement park on the Jersey shore; the river of water running through the narrow streets of Hoboken; and the weeping mother who lost two toddlers amidst the flooding on Staten Island. We watched cable news. We texted REDCROSS to 90999. We donated canned goods and batteries. Yet, consistent with human nature, our interest soon faded.
In Connecticut, you need a good reason to arrest a kid. That shouldn’t be any big surprise. But to advocates who’ve witnessed decades of increases in school-based arrests for things like dress code violations and running in the hallway, it’s huge. Connecticut’s judicial branch is now rejecting delinquency summonses and status offender complaints unless “the facts, if true, would be sufficient to be a juvenile matter, and whether the interests of the public or the child require that further action be taken …” If Judicial’s Court Supportive Service Division [juvenile probation officers] rejects an arrest, the arresting officer and the youth’s parents will receive a letter informing them of services in the community that could more appropriately address the problem behavior. The credit for this enlightened policy goes largely to Court Supportive Service Division Executive Director William Carbone, who has been a champion of good, evidence-based programming throughout his tenure.
An amended law that took effect July 1 made Mississippi the latest state to rethink how youth under the age of 18 are handled in criminal court. The new measure prevents most 17-year-old misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenders from being tried as adults. Certain felonies including rape, murder and armed robbery may still warrant charges in the adult court system. Two other states, Connecticut and Illinois, passed similar reforms earlier this year bringing the national total to 39 states that view juveniles as any individual below the age of 18, according to a report issued last week by the Campaign for Youth Justice. “This is a good news report.” Liz Ryan, director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, — a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit focused on the issue — told USA Today.
An era of prosecuting juveniles as adults may be coming to an end in numerous states as criminal justice officials face a growing recognition that many underage offenders have been mishandled in the adult system, details a story in Sunday’s New York Times. While states from Connecticut to Wisconsin have started to roll back the generation’s old policies, many other states remain resistant to the change, citing the higher cost of adding more people to the juvenile systems at a time of crushing budget problems, says the paper.