Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie
Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, announces the Improving Outcomes for Youth (IOYOUTH) Statewide Task Force. (Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Juvenile arrests decreased 57% from 2009 to 2017. But state leaders including juvenile justice advocates, legislators, and Judicial Branch officials are looking to find more ways to cut recidivism and keep kids out of the system through a comprehensive review launched Tuesday morning.

The Improving Outcomes for Youth (IOYOUTH) Statewide Task Force will examine every aspect of the state’s juvenile justice system from arrests and diversion programs to sentencing and recidivism rates by focusing on a wide range of data.

The goal is to examine what’s working — and what could work better — to shape future spending and legislation by the next General Assembly session in February.

“We’ve done amazing things,” said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who is credited as a driving force behind juvenile justice reform in the state.

Walker was joined by Melissa McCaw, Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, in announcing the first meeting of the task force. The group of about two dozen policy makers includes Chief Public Defender Christine Rapillo and Judge Bernadette Conway, the Chief Administrative Judge for Juvenile Matters within the Judicial Branch.

The initiative is being conducted in partnership with the non-profit, non-partisan Council of State Governments (CSG) that helps communities and organizations develop research-based strategies to increase public safety.

The state was identified as a good candidate based on the juvenile justice reforms that have taken place over the past few years, according to Nina Salomon, Deputy Program Director for the CSG Justice Center.

“We’ll take a look at the information, take a look at the current juvenile justice system, and then help with next steps,” Salomon said.

The project will be state-driven with the state taking the lead in gathering and examining the data, Salomon said.

Among the state’s accomplishments is a 69% decrease in the number of juveniles who are incarcerated, Walker said. The state also has stopped referring kids who commit petty crimes, such as truancy, into the system, she added.

“We know that entering the system for truancy and other low-level offenses increases the likelihood the child will re-offend,” Walker said.

But it’s not all good news.

“Sixty-five percent of all referrals (into the juvenile justice system) are youth of color,” Conway said. “The racial and ethnic disparities that exist in our system are not down.”

As part of their work, which is expected to conclude in January with a consensus on what legislation and resources will be needed to accomplish further goals, the task force will examine every aspect of the state’s juvenile justice system.

The project is supported by the Tow Youth Justice Institute at the University of New Haven and the state’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, of which Walker is a member.

Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie
The Improving Outcomes for Youth Statewide Task Force met for the first time Tuesday morning. (Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie)

After a brief introduction announcing the initiative in the lobby of the Capitol, the task force met for the first time to receive an overview of what work needs to be done before the legislature meets again in 2020. It’s an aggressive agenda, Salomon conceded, and much will depend on how quickly the group will be able to gather data for analysis.

Tuesday afternoon was spent with fiscal analysts from the state departments of Correction, Education, and Children and Families. Wednesday, the task force will visit a Hartford juvenile detention center to host a focus group with detainees and their parents.

The task force is made up of service providers and state agencies that interact with juveniles, but Abby Anderson, Executive Director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, pointed out that at least initially, there isn’t enough representation from the youth who are the subject of the initiative.

“It’s disproportionate,” Anderson said. “We’re meeting once with kids and parents” versus a “large number” of agencies who deal with the system. Those who are in the system have a very different view than those who are providing services, she added.

There will be more visits to detention centers as the group meets as whole again in September and November, Salomon said.

Thursday the task force will meet with public defenders, prosecutors and law enforcement. Data requests already have been submitted to various agencies so the group can review arrests, diversions, probation records, and court filings. The task force will review of services provided to juveniles who were diverted from the system and who are in the system.

“We’ll look at how they came into the system, how they move through the system and break it down by gender and other factors,” Salomon said. “We’ll look at funding and resources as well.”