When something goes wrong in a community, whatever happened to asking its members what they need? Sometimes the answer we hear might be “more police,” or to “lock up the children” in our neighborhoods. But more often than not, when given the option, community folk will say that the answer is to get young people the help they need.
Recent headlines, like the one from the Courant on December 3 — “Wethersfield police chief warns that juvenile crime will only get worse if harsher penalties aren’t enforced” — risk painting a dangerously inaccurate picture of our communities and our kids. While there has been a recent uptick in juvenile car theft (in Connecticut and nationwide), overall Connecticut’s police and court data show a steady drop in juvenile offending.
When juvenile crime does occur, it should spur us to unite as communities and across the state to address the root causes with programs that instill true accountability — not just lock up kids, which is costly and ineffective.
Aside from the fact that incarcerating young people is temporary, multiple studies have shown that it is damaging and, importantly, doesn’t make our communities safer. Why would we want our cities or our state to spend money on incarcerating kids when we could fund resources and programs that are proven to work — both by the evidence and feedback from youth and their families?
The key is spending money in ways data shows it will actually make communities safer. When young people are engaged, feel purposeful, and are on a path to improving the areas of their lives that they feel need it, they don’t commit crimes.
We — advocates, legislators, police, providers — need to come together and prioritize the physical, mental, and economic health of young people and their families.
We at the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance acknowledge that there are cases where it makes sense to remove a young person from his or her community. Those cases should be rare and out-of-home placements should be small and therapeutic. The policies of the “tough on crime days” did not work — and what we’re doing now, setting good policies while removing funding from effective approaches and interventions, will also fail.
We’ve made progress as a state, and have the potential to help more kids earlier — which will make our kids, our communities, and all of us, safer. But that won’t happen if we don’t shift the resources to what works, and it certainly won’t happen if we keep cutting those resources or pretending like we do not know the answer to the issues.
Imagine if we saw headlines calling for books in schools, warm clothing for young people who lack it, and equal education for all, instead of headlines that stoke fear and blame unsupported by data. Imagine, too, that our lawmakers spent the upcoming legislative session reversing cuts and finding ways to ensure our tax dollars support all families and communities.
All communities deserve to feel and BE safe. Every young person should have access to at least the basic supports they need. Other cities and states around the country have successfully developed policies that combat crime while also helping youth get back on to a path that is best for them and for their community. When will we catch up? How long are we going to ignore the research and instead rely on outdated approaches that further harm already traumatized young men and women? How much longer will kids hear loud and clear that those in power would rather lock them up than lift them up?
When will Connecticut put our youth and families first?
Christina Quaranta is Director of Policy and Community Connections at the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.
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