Investments in our young people have long lasting implications for their future, and for our communities.

Education, for example, is one of the leading indicators of success in a young person’s life.  Youth with less than a high school education or GED face a 346 percent higher risk of experiencing homelessness than their peers. Adult prisons, meanwhile, report that among inmates, an estimated 68 percent have not received a high school diploma. In juvenile detention facilities, studies show, average reading levels consistently measure at between the first and sixth grade.

Investing in programs and supports that keep young people in school is critical. Youth who are missing school need tailored interventions to help them reengage in the classroom and successfully complete their education. Connecticut, however, has dramatically cut investments in these programs in recent years.

In 2016, a much-needed change was made to remove Family With Special Needs cases from the courts. This transition reflected the fact that young people who are truant are best helped by their communities and schools, and should not be brought before the courts.

The unfortunate consequence of this change, however, was that $4 million that was previously allocated to help young people who are struggling with school attendance, disappeared from the state’s budget.  As a result, services to young people and their families were significantly reduced. These cuts included vital educational advocates and job readiness programs.

These types of investments in our youth are critical, but in recent years, numerous budgetary cuts such as those noted above have put our most vulnerable youth at even greater risk. Analysis from the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance shows at least $42 million was cut or never appropriated since 2016. This, coupled with a decision to stop participating in a federal grant program known as the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), could have long-lasting and serious implications for Connecticut’s young people.

The JJDPA serves as the primary federal law related to juvenile justice. It helps ensure that young people nationwide receive a fair shake and key protections, regardless of geography. The Act provides $60 million annually to states through its Title II grant program. These funds help support evidence-based and promising programs to address adolescent behavior through diversion programs, mentoring, and other interventions.

This state and federal partnership was reauthorized by Congress in December 2018. The new Act elevates the voices of young people and families with lived expertise in the justice system. The Act requires that each participating state have an advisory board of between 15 and 33 members, no less than 3 of whom must have personal experience with the system, and no less than one-third of whom must be younger than 28 prior to the time of their appointment. This youth collaboration ensures that young people have a say in services and projects and can use their lived expertise to create a path that best serves other young people.

The reauthorization provides other assurances as well. It requires states to describe the policies, procedures, and training they have in place for staff at juvenile State correctional facilities to help eliminate the use of dangerous practices, unreasonable restraints, and unreasonable isolation. These plans are critical to ensuring that youth do not suffer the many detrimental effects that can come from isolation, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Presently, Connecticut is one of only three states in the country – joined by Wyoming and Nebraska – that do not participate in the JJDPA, and whose young people will not benefit from the recent reauthorization’s programmatic changes and funding increases.

Investing in our young people today is essential to ensuring that our youth and communities have successful tomorrows. This legislative session, I urge you to reinvest in our most vulnerable youth, both through state funding, and through participation in the JJDPA.

Naomi Smoot is Executive Director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice in Washington, D.C.

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