Connecticut has reason to celebrate on youth justice reforms
Anniversaries are important moments for people to reflect on, and take stock of, their past.
Connecticut’s 10-year-anniversary of raising the age for handling youth in juvenile court from 16-years-old to 18-years-old is a real opportunity for communities to celebrate the success of this reform —that not only were part of justice reforms statewide, but that helped spark a ‘raise the age’ movement across the country.
The Justice Policy Institute, a national juvenile and criminal justice research and policy organization, has been closely watching Connecticut’s reforms over the past two decades, producing two reports, “Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut: How Collaboration and Commitment Have Improved Public Safety and Outcomes for Youth” (2013) and “Raising the Age: Shifting to a Safer & More Effective Juvenile Justice System” (2017). These reports highlighted the successes that collaboration, bold vision, data-driven decision making, and leading with the best interest of children in mind can make happen.
In 2007, Connecticut was one of only three states in the nation whose age of criminal court jurisdiction was 16 —meaning all 16- and 17-year-olds were automatically charged as adults, no matter how minor their offense. Connecticut has since become a national leader in justice reform.
In the ten years following Connecticut’s successfully raising the age, ten other states have followed suit, moving the U.S.the closest it has ever been to uniform agreement that 18 should be the minimum age of prosecuting a youth in adult court. These reforms have contributed to the number of youth in the adult system nationally dropping by nearly 70% – from 250,000 per year in 2005, to 76,000 in 2015 — a drop that exceeds the impressive reductions in overall youth arrests (55%).
One of our key findings in Raise the Age was that the first three states who raised the age (Connecticut, Massachusetts and Illinois), all did so without an increase in confinement costs, or a spike in crime. In Connecticut, not only did the sky not fall, but great things happened —both for youth and public safety. Deeper investments in community programs, expanded use of diversion from school-based arrests, reduction in the use of pre-trial detention, and reduction in the reliance on deep end facilities are some of the other developmentally appropriate responses to youth misbehavior that Connecticut embraced.
Other states took note and followed Connecticut’s lead. Ten years later, we are seeing drops, not only in arrests of 16- 17-year-olds, but also in those of youth ages 18-20 — possibly a “raise the age effect” that shows if youth are kept in the community with proper supports, future involvement with the justice system will decline. This has led to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Colorado introducing legislation to align the age of criminal court jurisdiction with what research has taught us about adolescent development to keep more 18- 19-year-olds under the auspices of family court. In 2018, Vermont was the first state to raise the age to 20.
We are happy that Connecticut is taking time on this 10-year anniversary to recognize its progress and the power of collaboration, and we look forward to the opportunity to report further on Connecticut’s justice reforms in the years ahead.
Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. He previously served as general counsel and interim director of Washington, DC’s youth corrections agency.
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