Op-Ed: Imagine freedom for Connecticut kids

The governor’s proposal to reorganize juvenile justice in Connecticut will dismantle a system that has reduced youth crime and saved taxpayers millions. I oppose it, on the grounds that it would likely lead to worse outcomes and be more expensive than the current system.

But this proposal also gives me hope. It tells me my government is willing to reimagine what should happen when a young person makes a mistake.

Op-ed submit bugThe research is conclusive: Incarceration is the most expensive and least effective way to deal with young people who break the law. Community-based programs are far more successful in preventing continued offending and are much cheaper.

The current plan would take the Court Support Services Division’s (CSSD) juvenile operations and place them under the Department of Children and Families (DCF).  Right now, CSSD oversees 97 percent of the young people in the juvenile justice system – those who are not removed from their homes. DCF handles the 3 percent who are incarcerated or placed in other residential programs. CSSD has done an excellent job of shifting to evidence-based, prevention-focused measures.

In other words, we are taking the part of our government that does the work we know benefits public safety and kids most and costs least – and moving it under the umbrella of the agency with expertise in incarceration, which all the research tells us is the worst possible option for kids and communities.

Now, you might say that incarcerating only 3 percent of the kids who enter the system is an impressive number. It is, and it represents years of work to move the system toward prevention, diversion and effective community-based programs. But we can do better.

“The kids I’ve seen make it have followed various trajectories, but they all have a consistent relationship with at least one trusted adult,” writes author Nell Bernstein in Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. Incarceration severs those relationships and instead puts a youth into a harsh, institutional world. Why would we expect them to come out better than when they went in?

If you want to save money on juvenile justice, you need to decrease the amount of incarceration. Every kid that we keep out of a locked facility saves the state an enormous amount of money. The cost of keeping a child locked up at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School for six months is more than $135,000.

“Virtually anything that can be done in an institution can be done better in a community,” according to a 2014 report by Youth Advocate Programs. The report follows cases of high risk youth managed safely in communities in 17 different states. Safety, I want to emphasize, is a priority in these programs and scrupulously managed. Also keep in mind that young people accused of the most serious crimes in Connecticut are tried as adults and would not be part of any major rethink of the juvenile justice system.

For many years, advocates have seen incarceration as a necessary evil, the only safe way to deal with the highest risk kids. But what if it is an unnecessary evil? The success of other states in diverting even tough cases from institutions suggests that it is.

I am not proposing that we simply stop incarcerating kids without another plan in place. Developing individualized plans to safely serve kids is crucial to success. Major changes in Connecticut’s juvenile justice system have always been preceded by intense periods of study and planning. This should be no different.

Turning away from incarceration will save money immediately and for years to come, because it will reduce recidivism. Cutting community services, as the governor’s plan proposes, saves money in the short run but is costly in the long-term because kids are more likely to re-offend, drop out, or experience a list of other negative consequences when their needs are not addressed.

Advocates are often in the position of pushing for more public spending. The evidence is clear when it comes to juvenile justice: We can achieve real savings while serving kids better. This proposed movement of all of juvenile justice into DCF holds little promise to save money and great risk of harming kids. If we are going to reimagine juvenile justice in Connecticut, we must set our sights much higher.

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

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