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There comes a point when progress isn’t enough. Especially if Black and brown communities aren’t able to access the fruit of that progress.

Our state may be a prime example of that.

There has been a lot of incremental progress on reforming the state of the juvenile justice system for the last 10 years – the closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, raising the age to be considered a juvenile to 18, and a dramatic reduction in the state’s prison and detention population are just a few. But improvements to the system do not matter to the youth still being detained and imprisoned today.

Today, we released a report, “Ending the Criminalization of Youth: One Investment at a Time,” where we outline the many conversations we had with impacted youth, families, and communities. Alongside system-impacted individuals, we identified some of the next steps that need to be taken to address the inequities communities face.

It should come as no surprise that we still have tons of work to do to improve the lives of system-involved youth. To get there, we can start with ensuring no young person under the age of 18 is transferred to the adult system or held in a prison-like environment. Next, we can raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from age 7 to 12, so our state can no longer detain children under the age of 12 – something our state currently does, as proven by the children as young as 7 being arrested for misbehavior.

We can make those changes right now. But really, we should be focused on a bigger question: Why do we still invest in an antiquated and oppressive system that locks up youth?

For generations, incarceration has been utilized as a way to punish people and if our goal is simply to punish, then our systems are really, really effective. But if we want to improve public safety, work with people who have participated in wrong-doing to repair any harm they may have caused, and allow them to safely re-enter their communities as engaging members of society, then what we really need to do is invest in their success, not a system of arrests.

I have been working with the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CTJJA) for more than two years. I was drawn to the organization for one simple reason – the mission to end the criminalization of youth. When I was brought on, CTJJA was going through a transformation to more authentically include the people impacted by that system in the work. So after more than a decade of advocating and achieving significant reforms on behalf of system-involved youth, CTJJA began working alongside impacted youth, family, and community members to ensure their voices and experiences were being incorporated into all discussions around juvenile justice policy, practice, and reform.

This internal transformation was necessary because we know that directly impacted individuals can pinpoint exactly what kind of resources and support they need in order to thrive, and what systemic failures drive people into the system in the first place.

If we want to reduce the number of youth in the justice system, and ultimately reduce the number of people in the adult systems, we need to tackle the root causes of youth criminalization and system-involvement.

As a state, and more recently as a country, we’re finally coming to terms with the fact that justice system-involvement is driven by poverty and racism. But in order to enact the change we seek, we have to understand that poverty is the result of institutional, structural, systemic, and intergenerational racism that have made it nearly impossible for Black and brown communities to access the opportunities to thrive the way white communities do.

Individuals from Black or brown families enter the system at a higher rate than their white peers, not because there is an increase in criminality, but because of an extreme lack of resources to meet their most basic needs.

It’s not just explicit biases that drive more Black and brown people into the system. At every level of the justice system, implicit and explicit biases play a role in who is more likely to get locked up. For generations, facilities have been overpopulated with people of color. This Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System outlined how Black Americans were disproportionately arrested, held in pre-trial detention, and sentenced. Even data from our state show that race plays a factor into which young people get transferred from the juvenile system to the adult system.

Connecticut has a history of disinvesting in inner cities all across the state, which is an issue that is reflected not only locally but nationally. Predominantly white and affluent communities have state and municipal leadership that supports the investment in education, community-based programs, and other avenues that ensure youth can succeed.

Looking at the current movement calling for police accountability and divestment, coupled with the impacts of COVID-19, it is more urgent than ever that our leadership address systemic injustices through divesting from systems that cause harm and investing in areas prioritized by communities.

We don’t need to keep people incarcerated to ensure public safety. Addressing the inequities that drive certain young people into the system will achieve that goal. We can’t expect a person to come out of incarceration, or any part of the justice system, rehabilitated after being in a space that does not promote personal success and growth. This especially because we know that people who leave the justice systems face many additional barriers to success. If we want to promote public safety, we need to be implementing restorative practices to create a true justice system that allows young people, and all people, to learn from their actions and continue on a path to be valuable additions to their communities.

By shifting our priorities from punishment to investment and involving those directly impacted in the decision-making process, we can take steps towards creating a new, equitable and restorative system.

This week we are kicking off the launch of our new campaign, #InvestInMeCT with a goal to reduce the number of system-involved youth by building opportunity-rich communities where all youth and families can access the resources they need to succeed.

It’s time for Connecticut to move past the progress that’s been made, to address the racial and ethnic disparities in our state systems by taking larger steps towards promoting the success of all Connecticut youth. And because they’ve long been left out and left behind, we especially need to include the voices from youth in Black and brown bodies.

We have the power to invest in justice, so why are we so committed to settling for anything less.

Communities know what they need to succeed. Decision-makers need to listen.

Iliana Pujols is the Director of Community Connections for the CT Juvenile Justice Alliance.

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