Victories for at-risk kids despite a tight budget

Conventional wisdom says nobody leaves a legislative session completely happy, certainly not when a gargantuan deficit hangs over the proceedings. But when those of us who advocate for kids in the juvenile justice system left the Capitol, we felt… well, victorious.

Many measures to improve the system passed and are expected to be signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy. How did that happen in this climate of scarce resources? Sometimes doing the right thing costs nothing.

For example, the legislature passed a bill that will make it easier for kids to return to school after leaving the juvenile justice system. After all, shouldn’t we require these kids to have good school attendance? Of course we should, but many districts erect barriers. Often children are expelled or suspended when they try to re-enroll –for the very incidents that they’ve already been punished for in the system.

Some schools won’t recognize credits earned at juvenile detention centers or the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. A boy who left the training school thinking he was a junior, might be told he was an eighth grader because his credits don’t count. Imagine telling a 16-year-old that he’s in middle school. He’ll drop out, perhaps irreparably limiting his prospects.

Connecticut put a stop to all these practices at zero cost to taxpayers while gaining significant benefits. A high school graduate is less likely to become incarcerated, less likely to be homeless and more likely to earn a living wage. We are putting kids in a position to contribute to our state rather than become dependent upon it.

The legislature also passed measures to address inequities in our juvenile justice system. The state’s own studies show that children of color are more likely to enter the system and are treated more harshly there than their white peers. Those same studies tell us that the factors often blamed for this shameful reality – poverty, severity of offense, and neighborhood – do not explain away the disparity. Race and ethnicity themselves make a difference in how kids are treated.

The data show specific points where children of color suffer worse consequences. African-American and Latino children are more likely to be sent to detention before adjudication. Now no child will be sent to detention without an order from a judge. This measure should help to address the imbalance. The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis note on the bill deemed that it would have no budget impact on the state. Given that it costs $377 a day to keep a child in detention, taxpayers will save money. Far more importantly, we are saving children who can be safely maintained in the community from the traumatic experience of confinement. We know that the deeper a child goes into the system, the harder it is for him to extract himself.

The same bill also requires the state to report every two years on disparities in juvenile justice and on its efforts to reduce them. Currently the state reports this information every seven years. Such a long span makes the data more an object of historical interest than a tool to effect change. Again, the cost to taxpayers for this critical work is nothing.

Finally, the legislature passed a bill enacting technical changes necessary to include 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system next year. In fairness, though there were no costs in this bill, the state has spent money on the “Raise the Age” initiative, though far below projections. We have already added 16-year-olds, a reform that has worked well. Most states set the age of adulthood at 18, except, as will still be the case in Connecticut, for serious offenses. This is the norm because the juvenile system is far more effective at rehabilitation. Again, the bill carries no cost. But the benefit is significant: We’ll be holding kids accountable for their actions in an environment that sets them up to succeed rather than fail.

People with concerns far broader than mine will spend the next few weeks deconstructing the 2011 session. My takeaway is this: We don’t have to give up on progress because we are short on cash. We helped our youth quite a lot this year. That is the soundest investment any society can make – and in this case it was free.

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