House chamber (CTNewsJunkie photo)

Recommendations from the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee to raise the minimum age for arrest from 7 to 10 years old, better coordinate the education of detained and incarcerated kids and find ways to end school suspensions and expulsions are detailed in legislation awaiting action in the House. 

HB 6667 raises the minimum age for arrest to 10 years old. There were 112 children ages 12 and under who were referred to juvenile court in 2019, according to judicial branch data. Of that group, 33 were age 10 and under, the figures showed.

“Subjecting such young children to the criminal legal system causes trauma and creates, rather than avoids, further court involvement,” said Claudine Fox, interim policy and advocacy director for the  American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, in committee testimony on the bill. “The majority of these (children under 12 who were referred to juvenile court) were arrested for misdemeanors and most cases were resolved through dismissals, discharges, or nolles.”

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Other recommendations address giving kids a better chance at graduating high school rather than continuing to adult prison, said William Carbone, the executive of the Tow Youth Justice Institute at the University of New Haven. The Tow Institute provides research and recommendations to JJPOC regarding initiatives and laws addressing how youth are dealt with in the state’s criminal justice system.

“These kids get lost in the system and the end result is they don’t complete their high school diploma and that impacts them for the rest of their life,” Carbone said.

The legislation would create a special unit in the Department of Children and Families to track detained students’ progress and ensure their records are transferred in a timely manner with them to other districts. It would also ensure students have a reentry plan to resume their education when they are released. 

“The problem right now is that a child from New Haven could be detained in Bridgeport and schooled by the city of Bridgeport,” Carbone said. “Then the child gets placed in Hartford and then sentenced to Manson Youth Institution, which is schooled by another district.”

The DCF unit would be responsible for tracking and monitoring the progress of any youth detained and making sure that there is a re-entry plan which would allow students to restart their education in the community where they will reside when released.

Other portions of the bill would prohibit the state Department of Correction from using chemical agents, commonly known as pepper spray, on youth under the age of 18 incarcerated at Manson and York Correctional Institution

The agency is opposed to ending the practice on safety grounds, according to DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros in his testimony to the Judiciary Committee.

“A chemical agent is only utilized after all other measures of verbal intervention have been exhausted and have failed,” Quiros said. “It is considered a tool to avoid using authorized physical restraint to defuse a violent encounter, protect individuals under our supervision and minimize force.”

Quiros has said earlier this year that he would work to end the use of chemical agents on teens. But he told the committee that ending their use may violate two union contracts. He also pointed out that the use of chemical agents in prisons was developed to avoid physical confrontations between inmates and staff.

“I must caution that losing this option altogether during a significant incident would increase injuries to youth and our staff,” Quiros said. “It would also likely result in more of my staff being out on workers’ compensation due to injuries which could have been avoided.”

The bill would also form a study group to look at ways to end or limit school suspensions and expulsions. Suspensions and expulsions can drive crime, Carbone said, because teens who are out of school tend to hang out together.

“This is aimed at reducing the school-to-prison pipeline,” Carbone said. “Usually suspensions and expulsions are the first step in the process of dropping out. When kids are not in school because of suspensions and expulsions they are with other kids who are also out of school. What do you think they are doing? This contributes to public safety.”

State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan is also in favor of prohibiting suspensions and expulsions, she said in testimony. “We must commit to ending exclusionary discipline, starting with our youngest children, and directly confront the disproportionate impact of suspension/expulsion policies on Black and Hispanic children,” Eagan said. “Instead of having a zero tolerance policy for children, we must have a zero tolerance policy for suspending little children, and instead support our high expectations for schools by providing them with the equitable resources and community partnership opportunities that will improve outcomes for all children.”