As co-chair of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, I have a central role to play in forming our state’s budget. Yet I have never been totally happy with the result.

No one is, because need always dwarfs resources. That does not mean, however, that we resign ourselves to inadequacy. We keep looking for ways to spend smarter – to do more good in our great state with what we have. I have found that the best way for the legislature to do its job better is simple: It always starts with listening.

Reforming our juvenile justice system to offer young people opportunity and fairness has always been my passion. But far too often, we adults do that work without listening to the real experts: youth who have been through the system. Walk in Our Shoes: Youth Share Their Ideas for Changing Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice System is a new report composed of the opinions and experiences of youth who have been through the system or are at risk of entering it. They inject some much needed common sense into the conversation.

As those of us in Hartford talk about closing the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS), the teens have moved beyond thinking in terms of buildings to making suggestions about community-based programming. They think that safe, affordable housing and quality schools will do more to promote public safety than CJTS. I agree. They tell us that they want jobs that will help them contribute to their families – but they lack the opportunities to build skills or even exposure to career possibilities. They think that providing these experiences will both decrease crime and benefit the state’s economy. I agree. They would like to see more support for families and more community-based programs that will hold young people who break the law accountable in their own communities – or in some cases will prevent juvenile delinquency altogether. Again, I agree.

It is hard to find anyone these days who thinks it is a good idea to spend $30 million-plus on a juvenile prison where more than 80 percent of the kids only leave to be rearrested. What the report offers is a fresh perspective. Often the CJTS conversation gets stuck in talking about replacing this obviously bad building with a better one. Young people are freer in their thinking. They are imagining a system where we prevent crime and create opportunities in communities. In such a system, we would need only a few locked beds. So instead of building walls – our focus should be on building communities.

We adults have agreed to the broad outlines of closing CJTS. As we plan for a better juvenile justice system, it will be critical to include the voices of youth and families in those discussions. We have yet to get into the nitty gritty of what our system would look like without a training school. Those discussions will be incomplete and ill-informed unless we talk with the people who live the nitty-gritty every day.

Involving people most affected by our decisions is often reduced to drafting a plan and asking for a response. That is not true involvement. True involvement is getting youth and families to the table as we draft these plans. They should be the foundation – not an afterthought.

As we strive to create opportunity for youth and keep communities safe – and within budget constraints that nobody likes – I’ll be relying on the experts. I will be listening to youth and families.

People often think of families involved in the system as fundamentally different from their own. That has never been my experience. I meet youth who want to belong, want to be valuable members of their community, want to make their families proud. I meet adults who, more than anything, want to see their children happy, healthy and successful. Connecticut is a great state. These aspirations should not be beyond anyone’s reach. It is time to build a system that makes this possible – and we can only do it together.

Toni E. Walker represents New Haven’s 93rd Assembly District. She is House Chair of the Appropriations Committee.

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