May 8, 2018

Juvenile Justice Reform Must Maintain Its Focus on Prevention

Lauren Ruth, Ph.D.

A month ago, as a result of decades of juvenile justice reform, Connecticut celebrated the landmark closing of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS), its last large juvenile prison. Instead of a secluded facility far from youths’ communities, Connecticut will now rely on a network of smaller facilities that are informed by childhood and youth development. The closure of CJTS should not be viewed as the end of juvenile justice reform, but rather as a shift in the state’s approach to juvenile justice to one that asks how we can work towards preventing youth from ever seeing the inside of a prison cell.

Prevention, evidence-based programs, wrap-around services, and community supports for at-risk youth and their families can greatly reduce juvenile justice involvement. Preventative efforts are more cost-effective than relying on expensive court proceedings, and they help to open pathways toward responsible citizenship and opportunity for the youth they serve.

 

Although the Connecticut state legislature and all the executive agencies involved share a strong commitment to focus on prevention, the transition from CJTS to a more community-based system is at risk of failing to support these youths. A mix of unclear budgetary priorities, insufficient funding, and obstacles in collaboration might derail the state´s best efforts.

CJTS was extremely costly to operate, so with its closure the Department of Children and Families (DCF) will save a substantial amount of money in the long run. The state planned to shift this funding to cover the costs of establishing the kind of community-based services and facilities that are both cheaper to run and are more effective.

A quirk in the budget process, however, puts this at risk. With the closure of CJTS, policymakers shifted most of the funding that DCF used to operate the facility, in addition to some services for justice-involved youth, to the Court Support Services Division (CSSD), an agency within the Judicial Branch. The problem is that a significant amount of the savings have either gone elsewhere or have been cut outright, leaving prevention services badly underfunded. 

Both state agencies can and have run excellent juvenile justice programs in the past, making great strides towards reducing juvenile incarceration and responding to the needs of youth offenders with excellent programs that have become national models. Because of the budget cuts, however, many of these programs and initiatives that have made Connecticut a national leader in Juvenile Justice now lack adequate budgetary resources to operate.
Among these services are the Juvenile Review Boards, local community-based diversion initiatives that many towns and cities rely on for restorative juvenile justice work. These services also include evidence-based therapies that support children and families struggling with substance abuse and behavioral challenges before these children become involved with the courts through arrest.

At its height, CJTS and the Pueblo Unit for Girls cost DCF over $30 million a year to run, but the latest budget proposals shift $17 million to CSSD to establish both new secure facilities for youth with challenging needs and the services to help meet these needs, all of which is needed. This shift leaves DCF without the approximately $7 million they need to fund prevention efforts for at-risk youth. It is crucial that the General Assembly helps ensure that the closure of CJTS, an undisputed achievement, does not become a failure caused by unexpectedly overburdening the new justice system by leaving prevention behind.

Connecticut’s past successes in juvenile justice reform allow for the rightsizing of our justice because our policies to date have been focused on reducing the school-to-prison pipeline and racial and ethnic disparities in arrests while opening avenues to restorative justice and opportunity. But rightsizing is just that—reducing what is no longer necessary and optimizing investments. By adequately funding both prevention and services for youth with the most complex needs, Connecticut can ensure a brighter future for today’s children and tomorrow’s workforce.

 

Issue Area:
Juvenile Justice