The Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee agreed last week to advance to the legislature initiatives that would expand the committee and prevent juveniles from being arrested for certain petty crimes in favor of diversionary programs.

The recommendations didn’t include a push to raise the age of arrest from 10 to 12. It also didn’t include a proposal that would unify the role and scope of duties for School Resource Officers.

Under the proposals that were approved, juveniles who were charged for the first or second time with simple trespass, creating a public disturbance, disorderly conduct and sixth-degree larceny would not be arrested but instead referred to a youth service bureau or juvenile review board in their town or area.

Those boards would determine if the child, or the family needed services and would address accountability for the crime with restorative practices such an apology, community service or restitution.

The goal is to divert first-time, low-level offenders from the juvenile justice system which can wind up entrenching them in the court process leading to adult incarceration, said Tasha Hunt, deputy director of Juvenile Probation Services for the Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch.

“This is to prevent kids from getting further into our system,” Hunt said.

But Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield, who worked in the judicial system for 30 years, expressed concern that kids would see the lack of arrest as an opportunity to keep offending. “I’m hesitant that this will cause a spike in those areas of minor crime,” Callahan said.

The point was to divert kids who engage in low-level crimes from the system so that the court process can be reserved for high risk kids, said Erica Bromley, a juvenile justice liaison with the Connecticut Youth Services Association.

If a child or a family didn’t want to participate in the process, the case would go back to the referring agency, in most cases the police, which have discretion on how to proceed, could make an arrest, Bromley said.

The change in the law requiring police to divert juveniles from arrest to these boards would go into effect on July 1 for simple trespass and creating a public disturbance and Jan. 1, 2023 for disorderly conduct and sixth-degree larceny charges.

Bromley pointed out that the reforms will need funding – but an exact amount was still on the table. Each board needs more staff to deal with case management, she said. “The YSBs have to be adequately resourced in a way that can adequately serve the kids coming in,” Bromley said.

There are 4,500 kids in the system awaiting trial, said JJPOC Co-Chair Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven. “If we put them in prison it would cost $65,000 a year for each one of them.”

Members approved the low-level crime diversion plan and the plan to ask the legislature for money to fund it.

Members also voted to send a recommendation to the legislature that would expand the committee to include four members of organizations with expertise in juvenile justice.

But two issues that the committee sent to the legislature last year weren’t taken up for a vote. At least one will be back on the agenda for the committee’s Feb. 17 meeting, members said.

Last session, the committee recommended raising the age of arrest from 7 to 12. The compromise landed at 10. Christina Quaranta, executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance wanted to know if the committee would be bringing back to the proposal to raise the age to 12.

The answer is maybe, according to some members. Linda Dixon, an administrator of adolescent and juvenile justice services with the state Department of Children and Families said despite extensive discussions, the Diversion Workgroup opted to table the proposal to raise the age of arrest to 12 based on feedback from stakeholders.
“I think their concern was over the overall climate that this wasn’t the right time to continue,” Dixon said.

But several committee members including state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan disagreed. “It’s not a huge population, it’s pretty small,” Eagan said. “You see what they’re charged with, it’s lots of misdemeanors. They’re young children. We need to always be talking about the decriminalization of young children’s behavior.”

The committee agreed to put the raise the age recommendation back on the agenda for the next meeting.

A second proposal that was tabled would have recommended unifying all memorandums of understanding between police departments and schools for the use of school resource officers.

That recommendation needed more time to flesh out the specifics, workgroup members said.