Connecticut has become a national leader in a “critical but quiet revolution” in policies to reduce youth incarceration, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Juvenile Justice Network and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The report identifies Connecticut as one of nine states that have led the nation in reducing youth incarceration by adopting policies that support and encourage alternatives.
According to the report, youth incarceration in Connecticut declined by 50 percent from 2001 to 2010, reflecting a nationwide shift away from what the authors say was an over-reliance on youth confinement in the 1980s and 1990s. The report credits Connecticut with developing a network of community-based services for young offenders and high-risk youths; placing new restrictions on the ability of law enforcement to commit a child to secure detention; reducing the number of state detention centers; and working to reduce school-based arrests.
From 1985 to 2000, the number of youths confined in public facilities in Connecticut increased 37 percent, from 202 to 276, according to the report. But that number then fell from 291 in 2001, to 216 in 2010, a 26 percent decline. For both public and private facilities in the state, the number of youths detained dropped from 630 in 2001 to 315 in 2010, the report says. In 2010, 78 out of every 100,000 youths, ages 10 to 16, were confined in Connecticut. That’s the lowest rate among the nine states and is 63 percent lower than the 2010 U.S. average rate of 210, the researchers said.
Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, said the state had made “a real shift toward community-based services, which are generally more effective at promoting rehabilitation and much cheaper for taxpayers than incarceration.
“We used to send 16- and 17-year-olds to the adult system automatically, even for the most minor of charges,” she said. “It’s very significant that even when we added those older teens to juvenile jurisdiction, our numbers stayed low.” She was referring to changes in Connecticut law in recent years that raised the age of youths eligible for juvenile, rather than adult, jurisdiction from 16 to 18.
Anderson said the state has made major strides in diverting youths from the juvenile justice system “who don’t need to be there,” such as truants or students who commit non-violent offenses in schools. In 2011, the Court Support Services Division began screening all police summonses of youths arrested for minor offenses in schools and kicking back those deemed inappropriate for prosecution.
The national report chronicles a dramatic turnaround in youth incarceration rates across the country, which the authors said had peaked in 2000 because of growing public concern over youth crime. Over the next decade, a number of states – driven by both social policy considerations and budget constraints – began moving away from incarceration, especially for minor offenses.
“The recent decline in the number of youth confined to residential facilities in this country marks a complete reversal of the national youth incarceration buildup that occurred between 1985 and the year 2000,” the report says. While much of the decline was due to fewer numbers of arrests, “decisions made by law enforcement officials, after youth had been arrested, was also an important factor.” And, with many states grappling with budget deficits, the high costs associated with juvenile detention “put tremendous pressure on governors and state legislatures to find creative ways to reduce spending.”
Besides Connecticut, the nine states singled out for their leadership are: California, Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, New York, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.
Anderson said that while the falling numbers of youths in detention is encouraging, more work is needed to ensure that adequate services are in place for young people who are incarcerated, as well as for high-risk youths who remain in the community.
“There’s still work to be done,” she said. “We routinely see kids arrested at school for minor rule breaking. We’ve talked a lot about children’s mental health, but have not taken sufficient action. And we continue to see minority kids treated more severely than whites for the same offenses.”
Nationally, about 42,000 youths – close to 60 percent of those confined in 2010 — were detained for offenses that did not pose “substantial threats to public safety,” the report says. Past research has indicated that detention has negative consequences for a child’s education, mental health and risk of future misconduct.