Sarah Bryer

What in the world is going on in Connecticut? For a number of years now, the state has been a national leader in juvenile justice policy, but all of a sudden, it’s in danger of losing its crown. That’s not good for Connecticut youth or the safety of its communities.

As director of the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN)—whose member organizations advocate for reform in 35 states—I’ve had a bird’s eye view over the past decade of a sea-change in how states address youth in trouble with the law. While several states have been in the vanguard, Connecticut has arguably held the crown.

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Even during a decade in which almost every state in the nation reduced the number of youths it confined, Connecticut led them all, reducing the rate at which it confined youth by 65 percent between 2001 and 2011. That alone is a tremendous accomplishment, but there’s much more. A 2013 report from the Justice Policy Institute notes that Connecticut has:

  • invested millions in a network of high-quality, evidence-based programs and services so that youth can be safely served in the community instead of a dead-end detention cell;
  • ended the practice of sending youth to court for offenses that would not be a crime if committed by an adult (e.g., running away, truancy and possession of alcohol) and opened family support centers to address the root problems – thereby reducing the number of these youth rearrested or charged with new crimes by over 70 percent;
  • moved 16- and 17-year-olds from adult court into the jurisdiction of juvenile court, where risks to their safety are lower, and age-appropriate services are available; and
  • made significant strides in reducing the number of youth arrested or sent to juvenile court for non-serious misbehavior and routine offenses.

That’s an impressive list – and it’s not even complete. Connecticut policymakers and advocates deserve a lot of praise for these accomplishments. Lately, however, Connecticut has been in the spotlight for entirely different reasons, and praise should be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind:

Item: Jane Doe, a transgendered 16-year-old with a long history of sexual and emotional abuse — some of which occurred while she was in the care of the state — has been placed in an adult prison by the Department of Children and Families (DCF), where she waits in solitary confinement 22 to 23 hours a day, even though she has not been charged with an adult crime. Solitary confinement, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, causes depression, anxiety and psychosis, especially in youth. Further, DCF evidently planned to send Jane Doe to adult prison even while using her case to justify the need to open a new juvenile facility for girls at Middletown.

Item: My organization published a report last December that identified Connecticut as a national leader in reducing youth confinement. Now, it seems, the number of boys DCF has put in detention is at a 10-year high, as The CT Mirror reported Feb. 19. DCF blames the increase on the 16- and 17-year-olds who now fall under juvenile court jurisdiction, but the total number of youth that juvenile courts have committed to DCF has stayed constant, though their age has skewed higher.

Item: The legislature is considering Senate Bill 429, aimed at a “game” in which youth try to knock out strangers with one punch. The bill would automatically transfer such youth into adult court; if convicted, they would serve a mandatory two-year sentence. The question is, why is this necessary? Under current law, assault is already considered a crime. If the case is truly outrageous, there’s a mechanism in place to transfer youth to adult court to hold them accountable.

These three examples show an alarming willingness to make policy devoid of common sense and without reference to what the research says about how to help youth in trouble with the law and keep communities safe. That needs to change.

Fortunately, Connecticut has no shortage of smart, knowledgeable policymakers who can reverse this trend. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” as DCF commissioner Joette Katz observed recently. Indeed — but that’s only true if you’re still wearing one.

Sarah Bryer directs the National Juvenile Justice Network, in Washington, D.C.

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