Connecticut getting smart on juvenile justice

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You don’t teach trigonometry to third graders or spend time helping high school sophomores learn their colors. Educators have always understood that curriculum needs to be appropriate to the student’s development. If the juvenile justice system aims to teach better ways of interacting with the world, the system needs to be built around developmental stages, as several initiatives in Connecticut propose.

This approach will reduce reoffending and make our neighborhoods safer. That is not my opinion. It is a conclusion drawn from a wealth of science.

Gov. Dannel Malloy has called for the closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS), the state’s only youth prison.  The Pew Charitable Trusts did an extensive review of the literature and found that juvenile incarceration provided no benefit to public safety. Certainly CJTS, with its 80 percent-plus recidivism rate, is not preventing crime.

You cannot improve a teen’s behavior by putting him in a cage. Prison takes away the ability for a young person to build positive relationships in the community. Forming these relationships is a critical developmental task of adolescence – as well as a proven strategy for preventing delinquency and encouraging success.

A youth prison is a damaging environment; an adult one is even worse. The Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, a cross-systems stakeholder group of insiders and advocates, proposed to the legislature that it remove all youth under 18 from adult prisons. Young prisoners are at high risk of violence and suicide in adult facilities. Again, we know that adolescents are highly influenced by their environments. In a brutal setting, young people must adopt negative behaviors simply to survive. It is ridiculous to suppose that those behaviors will not follow them out the prison gates.

For the rare youth who cannot be managed safely in the community, the state can provide a few locked placements in small, therapeutic facilities. Most youth, however, will be better – and more cheaply – served by a network of community programs. Building a system of individualized wraparound services is critical to all of these reforms.

Gov. Malloy has also championed a reform to eventually remove 18- to 20-year-olds from the adult criminal justice system. In the interim, the bill also creates a “youthful offender” status for young adults that will protect them from some of the harm done by the adult system, notably giving them a chance at clearing their records so that they have better odds of academic and professional success.

In a world where justice policies are so often based on emotion, it is heartening to hear a proposal based on fact. We know 18- to 20-year-olds have much more in common with adolescents neurologically than they do with older adults. This developmental stage is marked by a potential for change, for rehabilitation. This is not soft science. An expert can look at an MRI and tell you if it represents the brain of an adolescent.

The potential to change cuts both ways. People in this age group are highly influenced by their environment. The adult criminal justice system is a negative environment. Young adults who are sent there have the highest recidivism rates of any group. Moving them to the juvenile system can change that. For example, a 2015 study found that giving this age group access to multi-systemic therapy – an intervention common in the juvenile justice system – significantly reduced rearrest.

When we speak in terms of “programs” and “services,” it can sound like the juvenile system lets kids off easy. The opposite is true. It requires young people to spend their days in class and much of their free time working on the issues that landed them in trouble. The adult system makes far fewer demands but brands youths with records that forever shut them out of schools, jobs and military service.

A system that marks young people for life and denies them rehabilitation is a failure, just as the policy of incarcerating young people is. Unless we take a developmental approach, we end up doing more harm than good. Putting youth in prisons and treating 19-year-olds like lost causes ignores a wealth of science, not to mention common sense. We need to hold young people accountable in ways that increase their chances of becoming productive members of our community – for their sakes and for ours.

Abby Anderson is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.

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