Courtesy of CTN
Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven (Courtesy of CTN)

HARTFORD, CT – The Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee (JJPOC) Thursday adopted recommendations that set out to implement Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s vision to treat most 18, 19, and 20-year-olds as juveniles and not adults in the criminal justice system.

If eventually passed by the full General Assembly, it would make Connecticut the first state in the country to adopt such legislation that treats these “emerging adults” as juveniles.

The report published by the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice didn’t offer any advice on whether the state should move forward with this process of raising the age, but it offered guidelines for the governor and lawmakers if that’s the route they choose to go, according to William H. Carbone, director of The Tow Youth Justice Institute at The University of New Haven.

The report suggested that if lawmakers decide to move in that direction it would be best to phase in a program to bring 18, 19 and 20-year-olds into the juvenile justice system, just like it did with 16 and 17-year-olds back in 2007. Carbone said they are recommending a four and a half year phase in and a one and a half year hiatus between the first phase of 18 year olds and the second phase of 19 year olds.

“Connecticut has been a national leader in building and sustaining reforms in juvenile justice,” Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said.

Walker, who co-chairs JJPOC, added that what still needed to be taken into the account is the cost considerations of any change to the juvenile justice system, especially considering the state’s bleak fiscal state.

But, she told the researchers: “We’ve got a long way to go – but you did a great job.”

The report found that after Connecticut officials raised the age from 15 to 16 they were rearrested at a rate almost 39 percent lower than matched youths their same age who had been previously tried as adults.

Connecticut now has its lowest number of juveniles in pretrial detention, its lowest number of youth in the Department of Children and Families run Connecticut Juvenile Training School, and the lowest number of emerging adult offenders ages 18 to 21 in its adult prisons in a quarter-century, the report said.

“When the inclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds was previously proposed in Connecticut, many predicted a disaster; the juvenile system would be overwhelmed, the costs would be astronomical and public safety would be at risk,” Lael Chester, Harvard fellow and co-author of the report said.

The critics were wrong.

“The actual outcome was a resounding success,” Chester said. “Connecticut has experienced declines in crime at a staggering rate and without additional costs, putting the state in an ideal position to enact reforms for emerging adults.”

But even with that success, Malloy was unable to convince lawmakers to raise the age to include the emerging adult population of 18, 19, and 20 year olds.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, fearful it would cost them votes in the November election, believed the legislation was soft on those convicted of crimes. Some were also hesitant about giving younger people the ability to have their cases decided in a juvenile court that’s not open to the public.

He’s hoping this year is different and that the report will help convince lawmakers to adopt legislation.

The report made 15 recommendations to facilitate the implementation of the proposed legislation. These include:

—Expanding a robust diversion system, which would allow approximately one-third of all emerging adult cases that are now being automatically sent to court to be effectively handled outside of the formal judicial process.

—Expanding alternatives to pre-trial detention to ensure that confinement is used only when no safe and less-restrictive alternatives are available, reducing the risk of harm that can be caused by confinement to youth (which research shows to be often a counter- productive experience) and again reducing costs to taxpayers

—Developing a full continuum of care for youth and emerging adults sentenced to the Department of Children and Family Services through a regionalized network of small, therapeutic facilities for the small number who need to be confined, as well as a network of community-based programs in youth’s neighborhoods.

Not all of the recommendations were viewed favorably by the JJPOC chairs. Carbone said that at least three recommendations have been set aside for further research. One deals with raising the age from 7 to 12 for the threshold at which children can enter the juvenile justice system, another deals with creation of a continuum of services for emerging adults, and the last one involves the reconsideration of the automatic transfer statute of juveniles into the adult system based on their crime.

Carbone said the first two need more study and the co-chairs of the committee didn’t feel the need to change the transfer statute. He said it can remain the same and the state can still implement 18,19, and 20 years olds into the juvenile system.

“This report provides our state officials with a comprehensive analysis of the challenges and opportunities involved in raising the age to 21,” Carbone said. “It will be a reliable guide as our policymakers consider this major step in our state’s continuing juvenile justice reform efforts.”

JJPOC accepted the Harvard report and will use it in developing legislation.

Advocates noted while the proposals would make Connecticut the first state to include emerging adults in the juvenile justice system, other states aren’t far behind. Both Illinois and Vermont held legislative hearings on the subject last year, and a bill is expected to be filed in Massachusetts shortly.

In 2015, Malloy was able to get the legislature to agree to a package of criminal justice reforms that got rid of mandatory minimums for possession of narcotics within 1,500 feet of schools or daycares.