During its special session, the legislature will consider the governor’s Second Chance proposal, which aims to make sure that a minor criminal offense does not forever bar a person from success. Policymakers should take the opportunity of the special session to extend second chances to children as well.
Three quarters of inmates in state prisons do not have high school diplomas, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. One of the most effective ways to cut our prison population is to increase our graduation rate. During the regular session, two no-cost proposals that would help kids in the juvenile justice system thrive in high school and beyond did not come to a vote. These proposals deserve a second chance.
The legislature can make sure that:
- Students leaving the juvenile justice system are immediately reenrolled in their home schools, and;
- Juvenile records are erased when young people have clearly reformed so that they can pursue educational and career goals.
Youth leaving the juvenile justice system have difficulty re-enrolling in their home schools. They are faced with bureaucratic obstacles (sometimes created purposefully to exclude them), delays, and difficulty transferring credits earned during their placements.
When you make students wait months to attend school and then tell them that they must go back a grade because their credits do not count, they are likely to drop out. At that point, their chances of being incarcerated as an adult soar, while their chances of ever making a living wage plummet.
Many youth in the juvenile justice system have special education needs. Indeed, I suspect that some would not be in the system at all if their needs had been met and school became a place of success rather than frustration for them. Extra delays and disruptions for these students are especially damaging.
We know how to fix this. The legislature already reformed the re-enrollment process for kids coming out of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, but those youth form a small part of the system. There are no immediate pathways back to school for young people leaving detention or residential facilities. Cutting the red tape would cost taxpayers zero dollars.
Finally, young people who have paid for their mistake should be able to move on and pursue educational and career goals. Though juvenile records are supposedly sealed, they can be accessed.
A juvenile record can keep someone from attending college, getting a good job or being able to live in the home of his or her choice. The punishment for a youthful offense becomes life-long and creates a corps of people with few opportunities to contribute to our state as taxpayers, job creators and more.
Juvenile records should be automatically expunged – permanently erased – after two years without a further offense. States around the country are now opting for automatic erasure to knock down barriers to a clean record. The state already has the software to implement this, so this reform would cost taxpayers nothing.
Making sure that adults who break the law have a chance to productively re-enter society is good policy. Keeping kids from ever entering the adult criminal justice system is even better policy.
Fortunately, we can do both.
Martha Stone is executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy.