Re-fighting battles for children at the legislature

The legislative session that just ended will not go down in history as anyone’s favorite. But Connecticut’s children won some important victories, or I should say: won some important victories, again.

The legislature stood by Raise the Age, a reform that moved 16-year-olds to the juvenile justice system on Jan. 1, 2010. Before that, we’d been one of only three states to automatically prosecute children that young as adults, despite overwhelming research that this encourages recidivism and puts kids at risk of suicide and physical and sexual assault by older inmates.

This session there were calls to rescind Raise the Age to save municipalities money. It was the same argument opponents of the reform made when the law was originally considered. It’s no more valid now than it was then. Police chiefs played a huge role in fine-tuning language about arrest and processing to ensure the law wouldn’t burden their departments. Raise the Age was designed not to cost towns money, and it didn’t. Fortunately, legislators were not swayed.

Another big victory for kids also consisted of the legislature standing by a previous action. New school suspension legislation will go into effect July 1, 2010, after having already been delayed once. The law is based on the radical proposition that the reward for skipping school or having a cell phone in class should not be a day off. It simply says that out-of-school suspension should be reserved for children truly disrupting the educational process.

The politics around this bill mirror those around Raise the Age. On its first journey through the legislature, opponents branded it “The In-School Suspension Act” and claimed it required districts to create expensive in-school programs for misbehaving students. The law said nothing of the kind, but that didn’t stop opponents from making that argument again this session in a bid to repeal or once again delay the law.

Of course, special interests have a right to make a fuss about anything they want. That’s the nature of democracy. But to when groups raise the same issue that has been debated and put to rest, someone should politely say, “We’re dealing with an unprecedented fiscal crisis here. That’s where we need to focus our attention. And by the way, your insistence on revisiting a closed issue is costing the state money.” The legislature did the right thing on these issues. But why do they have to keep doing the right thing over and over?

One of my larger frustrations of the past session was with the press, not the legislature. Fewer mainstream papers and broadcast media are devoting resources to covering our state government. Many of those left have given into the pressures of short staffing often spend more time transcribing than probing. Coverage of this rerun obstructionism was quite favorable and gave it traction. We kept reading statements along the lines of “Opponents say Raise the Age will be costly to municipalities.” Shouldn’t any reporter worth his or her salt ask someone making such a claim to spell out exactly how it will be costly to municipalities? And – here’s a novel idea – shouldn’t the reporter call proponents of the reform and give us a chance to rebut that statement? That never happened in coverage of Raise the Age or the suspension bill.

The legislative process is messy and probably always will be. There will never be enough time to cover all the ground that a part-time legislature needs to in a single session. But they could get much farther if they stopped going in circles, stopped revisiting issues already examined.

There are no end of columnists and editorialists bemoaning the legislature’s imperfections at the close of each session. I’d love to see a few journalists with the courage and integrity to critique their own performance. More aggressive and incisive reporting would inform the legislative process instead of enabling obstructionists. We’re all familiar with the Thomas Jefferson quote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Sadly, Mr. Jefferson’s musings seem less hypothetical every day.

Abby Anderson is executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance in Bridgeport.

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