There are a lot of questions being asked about exactly how the governor’s proposal to treat individuals under the age of 21 in the juvenile court system would be implemented. With respect, they are the wrong questions.
The right ones: Is our current system producing the outcomes we want for young adults and community safety? Do we want a system that is almost purely punitive and retributive; that locks people away, with few services or opportunities to boost their skills, health or education; that brands young people for life; that reintroduces them to their communities with significantly reduced chances to be safe, successful, productive members of the community? If so, then we don’t need any changes.
However, if we think people should be held accountable for their mistakes and poor choices in ways that also allow them to develop skills to significantly increase their chances to be safe, successful, productive members of their communities, then we should think about what the Raise the Age proposal is all about.
At heart, it is a call to have a conversation about who we want to be as a society and a community. A conversation about how we might revolutionize crime and punishment in this state. The system we have now does not do a great job for public safety — recidivism rates are high. The system we have now doesn’t help our economy — filled with tens of thousands of young adults with criminal records that will haunt them for the rest of their lives, making it nearly impossible for them to participate in the legal economy and pay taxes. The system we have now is a drain on our economy as we pay hundreds of millions of dollars on prisons and their revolving doors. It doesn’t help our communities — decimated by high arrest and incarceration rates.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal is a challenge. He believes Connecticut can do better. He has watched Connecticut’s juvenile justice system become one of the most admired juvenile justice systems in the nation.
This kind of change is not new for us. Our state raised the age once before, and saw lowered arrest rates, lower recidivism rates and — after all that investment in community programs and services focused on bundling accountability and rehabilitation together — a smaller and less expensive juvenile justice system than ever before.
Will the juvenile justice system for 19-year-olds be exactly the same as the one for 13-year-olds? It shouldn’t. But a great part of our juvenile justice system today is that it no longer aims to be the same for two different 13-year-olds. Because those two 13-year-olds are different from each other. Their risk profiles are different. Their needs are different. Their strengths and dreams are different. So the system is — slowly — moving to one that treats every individual as just that — an individual, by determining accountability and rehabilitation programs individually. And that is what works.
Trying to determine the specifics of exactly what is going to happen under every possible eventuality if we raise the age to 21 is like saying you’ll never drive cross country unless you know every single turn you’ll take between here and the Pacific. It’s pre-emptive. What needs to happen is what the governor proposes. A broad group of stakeholders needs to come together to put all these questions on the table, look at research, examine best practices, determine paths forward and present them to state leaders for review and discussion in the next legislative session.
What we know for sure is that what we are doing now doesn’t work. It doesn’t best improve public safety, it doesn’t change people for the better and it isn’t cost effective. What the governor is proposing is that we believe in our ability to do better — to make our state safer, to make our communities stronger, to make our tax dollars more effective.
We don’t have all of the answers today. We don’t need to have all the answers today. What we need is the opportunity to discuss, wrestle with, fight about and compromise around the tough questions. I really hope we get a first chance to do just that.
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