This session, the legislature passed landmark legislation to improve our juvenile justice system. Yet the state budget starves that very system for funding. So the question is: What happens to our kids when a groundbreaking law runs up against an austerity budget?
An omnibus bill that draws on recommendations from the non-partisan Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee passed without much fanfare. But it promises to move toward a system where helping kids is the first priority and locking them up is a last resort.
For example, the bill reduces the number of valid reasons to keep a youth in detention. Research shows that a stay in detention harms kids in multiple ways, including exacerbating mental illness, increasing the chances kids will reoffend, and making it less likely that they will graduate from high school. Under the new law, judges can no longer send a child to lock up because her home is unsafe. In other words, we’re not going to treat kids like criminals because their family needs supports.
Whenever we stop doing what’s wrong, however, we need to implement a strategy to do what’s right instead. We need a procedure to determine risk to the child, in-home supports for some families, and safe, non-institutional placements for kids who cannot go home.
All of that, of course, costs money. Certainly, these smart and humane programs are cheaper than keeping a youth in detention. Locking up children is invariably the most expensive way to respond to delinquency. But alternatives do cost something. We have seen time and again that when no better plan is available, the numbers in our locked facilities go up – to the detriment of kids, families, communities and, yes, taxpayers.
The Judicial Branch is responsible for 95 percent of our juvenile justice system. It has laid off about 300 people since May, including juvenile probation officers, often the gateway to services for youth in trouble. It will no longer have probation officers specially trained to help girl clients. To believe that the branch can continue to offer the full array of effective services that it does today is magical thinking.
Children who are no longer detained because of mental health needs or family issues will most likely need services from the Department of Children and Families, instead of the court. A federal monitor has already said that DCF does not have enough social workers to serve Connecticut’s children, yet DCF experienced cuts and layoffs as well.
The past decade has been largely a success for juvenile justice reform in Connecticut. Youth crime is dropping dramatically. When kids do break the law, most are held accountable in the community, where they can keep attending school and work on family and other relationships that will be key to their success. That is largely possible because of supports put in place by the Judicial Branch and DCF, which will now have to cut back on these services. Overall juvenile justice spending declined in the state as we invested more in community programming. To cut the very services that led to savings is pennywise and pound-foolish.
Perhaps the most important part of 2016’s juvenile reform bill is that it removes “punish the child” from the statutes as one of the purposes of the juvenile justice system. The system should exist to rehabilitate while holding the youth accountable, to literally (rather than figuratively) teach a kid a lesson.
Those three little words—punish the child—may not sound like much to you, but eliminating them warms an advocate’s heart. It says to me that we’re going to start questioning the high number of children we transfer to adult court; that we will see parents as partners, not problems; that we are finally going to find a way to deal with childhood trauma in the community, before kids bring it with them to the courtroom.
This shift promises to make Connecticut’s juvenile justice system the best in the nation. We must put the resources in place to realize that promise.
Abby Anderson is executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.