Consider an independent juvenile justice authority for Connecticut

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Before “raising the age” again, the State of Connecticut and its key justice agencies — DCF, DOC and the Judicial Branch including the Court Support Services Division — need to participate in an honest independent look at all of our current organizational structures for adjudicated youth. The review could be established by executive order and completed over the next 120 days, thus making its recommendations useful to the governor and the incoming 2016 Connecticut General Assembly.

The purpose of this external review would be to examine creation of an independent Juvenile Justice Authority that is science-informed, takes a two-generation approach and is anchored in “evidence-based” policy, practice and programs. Clearly what we have now is not working well. Besides that, it is really expensive.

There are several very good reasons for this speedy review.

First, many of these young adults share similar backgrounds in trauma and adversity, which does not excuse but does help to explain their attitudes and behaviors.

Second, youth are now housed across these three agencies with very little inter-agency coordination and science-informed co-training around their needs and experiences. It would also be very helpful to know, as part of this process, how many of these young people have had prior experience within the Department of Children and Families either through its child welfare or mental health services.

Third, while “raising the age” may reduce our adult crime numbers by shifting younger people into the juvenile system, it makes little sense to add more people to the same environments where none of us are very happy with the outcomes being produced.

How do I get off making this suggestion which will doubtless raise the ire of lots of grown-ups in the state system?

I served as Deputy Commissioner at the Department of Children and Families twice over the past 20 years, most recently from 2011 through later 2013. I also served as Director of Health Services in the CT Department of Correction, when the state began the process of creating a system to meet inmates’ health needs. I also worked in the then Department of Mental Retardation when we closed Mansfield Training School, so I know it is possible to close and restructure state units.

I am working now on translating what we know about brain development and adversity into workable public policy.  You can find a lot of this latter work on the website of the Institute for Child Success.

It would not be surprising to me if the review also recommended that all state agencies (and their funded grantees and contractors) serving families with children across the age span expand the use of evidence, based trauma- and science-informed practices and interventions. And that they work with the child, his or her parents and extended family, and our school community from a whole family, two- (or more) generational perspective.  We need this lens because the problems of youth are rarely independent of experiences with the adults in their lives and the places in which they live, learn and grow.

We have a lot of “science” to draw on. There is a science of poverty and racism, and a science of adversity, trauma and toxic stress.  The neuroscience of adolescent and young adult brain development — especially in the areas of executive function and self-regulation — is growing rapidly. And then there is Implementation Science which helps us to launch and operate evidence-based interventions with fidelity.

There is no reason to continue on a pathway that does not advance the real outcomes we want: fewer young people in our systems, and more young people successful and contributing to this state as learners, workers, parents, citizens and — yes — taxpayers. Our old friend “anonymous” said it best: If you keep doing what you are doing, you will keep getting what you are getting.

Finally, at the same time that we consider an additional change in the ages and ways we serve youthful and young adult offenders, we simply must restore and expand funds to this state’s investment early in the lives of children living in vulnerable families.

It is folly to expend great resources at the back end of our systems (and more money will certainly be a part of “raising the age”) without investing at least as much in (for example) home visiting and high quality early care and education for families with very young children who are also living with stress and adversity.

I fully support the Second Chance effort that Gov. Dannel Malloy has launched. How about a “First Chance” as well?

Janice M. Gruendel, Ph.D., M.Ed., is a senior fellow at the Institute of Child Success.

What do you think?

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