How Connecticut changed the juvenile justice world
A dozen years ago, Emily Tow Jackson, president of The Tow Foundation, invited me to Connecticut to talk about states' efforts to create forums to advocate for juvenile justice reforms. The Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CTJJA) was launched soon after in November 2001 as a collaborative effort by The Tow Foundation along with the state's leading reform advocates at the Center for Children's Advocacy, Connecticut Voices for Children and RYASAP.
Little did I know in 2001 that this meeting would put me in the catbird seat as an eyewitness to the amazing transformation in Connecticut over the subsequent decade that would make this state a model in juvenile justice for others to emulate. In fact, Connecticut created the gold standard. This system-wide culture change and the transformative results are showcased in an excellent report by well-known writer Richard A. Mendel released this past week by the Justice Policy Institute called, "Juvenile Justice Reform in Connecticut: How Collaboration and Commitment Have Improved Public Safety and Outcomes for Youth." Over the course of the past decade, Connecticut went from a juvenile justice system the report characterizes as "unsafe, neglectful, harsh, unconstitutional and overly punitive" to, in my opinion, one of the best that is treatment-oriented, humane and cost-effective.
Reforms have focused on keeping kids out of the system in the first place, reducing the over-reliance on confining adolescents in youth prisons, creating and investing in more effective alternatives to incarceration, and reducing the prosecution of youth in the adult criminal justice system. As a result, Connecticut achieved positive results for young people involved in the justice system, reduced costs to taxpayers and did not compromise public safety. "Most importantly," the report says, "reform has improved the lives of young people, their families, and their neighbors through gains in public safety and the increased positive contributions the youth are now able to make to Connecticut communities." This is simply an amazing feat. Connecticut's diverse array of stakeholders, both public and private, shared a deep commitment to children, youth and their families.
What were the key ingredients to Connecticut's success? I've highlighted three:
- The advocates were front and center to the positive outcomes achieved in Connecticut.
- They created a forum, the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, where a diverse group could advocate together and it worked.
- The alliance engaged stakeholders all over the state, including families of young people in the justice system. I witnessed this firsthand when concerns about potential increased costs to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction were debated at the state Legislature, threatening to jeopardize the legislation.
Another ingredient the report highlights is the state's commitment to evidence-based treatment models and promising practices validated by research. Kudos to both state agencies -- the Judicial Branch's Court Support Services Division (CSSD) and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) for their investments in proven services that have benefited hundreds of youth and improved their chances for successful lives. And the leadership of state Rep. Toni Walker and state Sen. Toni Harp has been essential in ensuring that appropriate fiscal, policy and implementation actions were taken by the Legislature and cannot be underscored enough.
And finally, the reforms could not have happened without the philanthropic community's leadership and support, most notably The Tow Foundation. Their thoughtful and effective collaboration in and unwavering support for the advocacy effort, knowing that it might take a decade, and its strategic investments in research and services deserve high praise. Also local philanthropists, such as the Connecticut Health Foundation, the Edward S. Moore Family Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven and national foundations, such as the Public Welfare, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, Open Society and JEHT, have made investments and commitment to reform.
Advocates acknowledge that Connecticut has more work ahead to help youth and families, and should not take its foot off the gas. That is certainly true in such areas as school discipline policies that result in arrests of youth, many for minor misbehavior, and persistent racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system.
But Connecticut has so much to celebrate. No other state that I'm aware of has made such sweeping, system-wide, collaborative reform for the benefit of youth who have come in contact with the law. Connecticut deserves to be recognized for its success. This is the time for broader reform and thanks to the Connecticut experience and outcomes, it just might happen.
Liz Ryan is the president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national organization dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youths under 18 in the adult criminal justice system.
Content Last Modified on 3/18/2013 11:03:39 AM