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Juvenile justice reforms making impact in Connecticut

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West Haven — The state’s efforts to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system appear to be having a long-term positive effect, a University of New Haven lecturer said Monday during the Connecticut State Forum on Public Safety.

The forum, an outgrowth of last fall’s 50-State Summit on Public Safety, outlined Connecticut’s successes while exploring how to adjust once Gov. Dannel P. Malloy leaves office in January.

Criminal justice has long been a hallmark for Malloy, whose Second Chance Society initiatives helped Connecticut achieve double-digit drops in crime and imprisonment from 2006 to 2016. It’s one of 21 states for which that’s true.

Focused on keeping people out of prison or helping them successfully reenter society, it’s a time period that saw the state close several prison facilities and begin treating 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles. It also saw the 2015 creation of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, charged with evaluating the state's policies and suggesting changes when applicable.

Speaking from a room within the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science, Senior Lecturer Bill Carbone said the committee quickly set three goals to achieve by June 30 this year: increase diversion, or the use of specialized programs in place of formal imprisonment, by 20 percent; decrease recidivism, or the act of reoffending, by 10 percent, and decrease incarceration by 30 percent.

With five days left until the deadline, the state should hit two of those three goals, he said.

In part through the use of juvenile review boards, which often refer youth to relevant rehabilitation programs rather than prison, the state in October already had increased diversion among youth by 18 percent. The state also made it so those who commit status offenses — or acts that are considered law violations only for minors, such as running away from home or underage drinking — are no longer referred to court, but rather to the services they need.

Carbone, who also directs the Tow Youth Justice Institute, said Connecticut is the first to remove all status offenders from juvenile courts.

“This is a great example of where policy decisions were rooted in research,” Carbone said. “The research is clear: The more contact youth have with the juvenile justice system, either police or courts, the more likely we are to see them come back to the system with increasingly serious offenses.”

Carbone said it’s possible that happens because imprisoned youth come to view themselves as criminals and become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Connecticut also saw a 58 percent reduction in the number of incarcerated children from 2007 to 2017, smashing the 30 percent goal. That happened even after the state moved 16- and 17-year-olds from the adult to the juvenile justice system.

The recidivism reduction goal likely won’t be met, Carbone said. Rather than a 10 percent drop, the state has seen an 8 percent drop. That’s possibly because many of the youth who remain in the system have been in the system longer, Carbone said, making them tougher to address.

Most exciting to Carbone were statistics from the state’s adult correctional system.

In 2009, the state Department of Correction housed 2,092 18- to 21-year-olds. Last year, that number was 840 — a 60 percent reduction.

“It seems to me like many of the reforms in the juvenile justice system are manifesting not just in statistics in the juvenile justice system, but we’re seeing results in the adult system, too,” Carbone said.

If the number of incarcerated 18- to 21-year-olds was steady or increasing, Carbone said, “we would have to say, ‘How lasting is what we’re doing in juvenile justice?’ But this is one of the most hopeful charts of all.”

Despite the state’s success in simultaneously reducing crime and imprisonment, attendees of the forum — they included private, public and nonprofit employees from across the criminal justice system — said much work remains.

Carbone said the money saved from housing fewer inmates should be more clearly directed to the programs that keep people out of prison. He also called on his colleagues to have more conversations with law enforcement officers, who may see diversionary programs as being too easy on crime and making towns more dangerous.

Carbone used arrest rates to refute that notion: From 2008 to 2016, rates for those under 25 fell by 56 percent.

“Are we compromising public safety?” Carbone asked. “The answer to that is no.”


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