After being referred to the Lymes Juvenile Review Board, one boy chose to do his mandated community service at the Volunteer Fire Department in Old Lyme.
“He loved it so much that he became a volunteer firefighter after his time was done,” said Mary Seidner, the director of the Lymes’ Youth Services Bureau and the co-chair of the Lymes Juvenile Review Board. “We see a lot of the kids continue to do the community service they started even after their requirement is done. It really gets them back on track.”
Prior to 2011, if a juvenile was arrested in Lyme or Old Lyme they would be sent to court. It didn’t matter if they were caught for truancy, shoplifting or a felony, they would all be sent to court. In 2011, with the help of a $4,000 grant from the state, Seidner launched the Lymes Juvenile Review Board to offer non-felony charges and first offenders an alternative to court. In 2012, East Lyme and Salem joined the Lymes Juvenile Review Board.
Each year the Lymes Juvenile Review Board sees between 12 and 20 cases. They receive referrals primarily from the police and the school districts and meet with each child as well as their family to form a restorative action plan.
“The point of JRB is you are admitting the guilt, helping to repair the harm that you have caused to yourself, your family, other people involved and the community,” Seidner said. “It’s restorative, not punitive.”
17% Decline in juvenile referrals
The program is not unique. There are now over 100 Juvenile Review Boards across the state of Connecticut helping to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system, according to the judicial branch.
“If there is one thing we know, it’s that the fewer contacts in court a child has the better off they will be,” said Bernadette Conway, the chief administrative judge for juvenile matters in Connecticut.
Over the past few years the state has worked hard to reduce the number of juveniles coming into contact with the court system through encouraging the establishment of juvenile review boards like the one in Old Lyme as well as eliminating truancy and defiance of school rules as cause for court involvement.
Since these reforms took effect, Connecticut saw a 17 percent decline in referrals to juvenile court between 2015 and 2018, according to the state’s judicial branch, but the state still faces ethnic and racial disparities: youth of color make up almost 65 percent of all referrals to juvenile court, according to the Court Support Services Division (CSSD) of the judicial branch.
Inadequate housing for juveniles
Those children, the ones that are considered a threat to the public or have multiple offenses, are not so lucky. A year after CSSD took responsibility for all juvenile cases in Connecticut, the children requiring a secure locked facility are still being held in state detention centers originally built for short stays only.
“It’s not ideal, these buildings were never meant for long term stays,” Conway said.
The children were transferred to these facilities, located in Hartford and Bridgeport, after the closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in July 2018. These detention centers however were designed to hold juveniles pre-trial, for up to 14 days maximum, not for long term stay. At present, 48 children are being held for months longer in a section of each detention facility — 24 as part of the REGIONS program – Re-entry, Goal-oriented, Opportunity to Nurture Success, Conway said.
The program is meant to provide mental and behavioral health treatment as well as education and rehabilitation services for the children in detention so that they are stable enough to be transferred to a community-based, unlocked facility or program. Although a year ago the plan was to have a locked, community-based facility in place and a second request for proposal (RFP) was put out in January 2019, the chances of having an alternative to the detention centers anytime soon is unlikely.
“We have on application for a facility that would hold just eight beds and it wouldn’t be ready until at the earliest Spring 2020,” Conway said. “This is what we want help figuring out, we need something better for these kids.”
After two RFPs and just one potentially viable application, the state is at a critical point. It needs to find a solution to this temporary fix that has lasted for over a year.
In an effort to improve the situation, the state has launched a review of the Juvenile Justice System in collaboration with the Tow Youth Justice Center and the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
The idea behind the review is to determine if the changes the state has put into place – including more diversions like the juvenile review boards – are actually doing what they were set out to do.
“It is not yet clear how recent reforms—including eliminating truancy and defiance of school rules as causes for justice system involvement and closing the state’s only secure facility for boys—have translated into public safety trends and youth outcomes,” according to a press release distributed by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center plans to take the next 18 months to do a complete review of the current juvenile justice system, gather data on outcomes and recommend strategies moving forward as to how the system can improve.
Equitable and sufficient custody
For Conway, the two most important areas she hopes the study will help improve are the detention centers and the racial disparity of juveniles in the system.
“It seems like with each improvement we make, the disparity gets worse and worse,” Conway said. “We don’t want to undo all the progress we’ve made, but the ratio can’t remain like this.”
The Council of State Governments Justice Center has done similar work in several other states including Colorado and Arizona. However, Connecticut will be the first state the center works with on the east coast, said Nina Salomon, a policy expert for the group. This work has been funded by a more than $6 million grant awarded by the National Re-entry Resource Center. Most recently, the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s work in Colorado led to the passing of a bill that established a committee on juvenile justice reform, as well as specific duties for the committee.
“We are excited to start work in Connecticut and help to lend an outside perspective to the work they have been doing,” Salomon said.
This story has been clarified. Although 48 children are in long-term custody at short-term facilities, only 24 are part of the REGIONS program.