Although fewer juveniles have ended up in the courts for committing a crime, the percentage tried for multiple offenses has increased. State’s attorneys and community liaisons say that the problem lies with a system that fails to provide serious offenders with the services they need.
“Our response has just been really kind of anemic when you look at the serious offenders,” said Brian Casinghino, the supervisory assistant state’s attorney.
Members of the state legislature have been holding closed-door meetings throughout the month of July to address juvenile crime, and, in particular, a spate of recent motor vehicle thefts that led to the death of at least one person. Their proposed solutions include easing access for police officers and judges after hours to access juvenile records and extending the length of time officers can detain juveniles.
Data from the Justice Department shows that the number of new juvenile cases have been dropping steadily since 2012. However, the percentage of juveniles who have previously appeared in court five or more times increased from a low of 11.1 percent in 2019 to 15.6 percent in 2021.
In 2019, juvenile court received referrals for 5,248 young people, a number which dropped to 3,197 in 2020. In that same time period, the number of juvenile referrals for young defendants brought to court five or more times rose from 413 to 585.
Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo said one of the reasons for the increase was a 2015 change in the law that made it more difficult to transfer certain felonies from juvenile court to adult court.
Casinghino said this data matches what he’s seen in Hartford.
“[Total] numbers have been going down … but the serious charges and serious offenses have been on the rise and much more difficult to deal with,” he said.
Out of 115 open cases in the Hartford district court, he said, 80 juveniles were being charged with felonies, and 53 were being charged with motor vehicle offenses, a number that he said was “really unusual.” Of the 115 cases, he said, 93 were 16- and 17-year olds.
Casinghino said that the rise in cases around motor vehicle thefts was particularly noteworthy.
“The motor vehicle cases are out of control. We’re having difficulty dealing with them adequately,” he said.
Lawmakers, attorneys and juvenile justice liaisons have argued over whether the pandemic is responsible for the recent increases in juvenile crime. Erica Bromley, Juvenile Justice Liaison at the Connecticut Youth Services Association, said that when the pandemic shut down services and activities, it left many of these teenagers with nothing to do.
“You cannot ignore the impact of the pandemic on youth and families in terms of their mental health, in terms of their daily living,” she said.
Casinghino, however, said that the increase in motor vehicle thefts began before the pandemic, and he pointed out that the Suspended Prosecution for Motor Vehicle Theft Program, a program meant to divert youth who have committed motor vehicle offenses from the criminal justice system, was put into effect in 2019.
Colangelo said he believed the answer is not in stricter punishment, but in programs to address youth mental health and to alleviate problems in the home.
“Instead of ‘What’s wrong with you?’ we should be talking about ‘What happened to you?’” said Colangelo.
Colangelo said that supervision for these juveniles only lasts about six months, which he doesn’t believe is sufficient to change ingrained behaviors.
“Realistically, we’re failing these kids as a system. We’re failing these kids because we’re leaving them in a position that’s going to not stop the behavior,” he said. “So what does that mean? That means when they get older, they’re going to keep trying to do the same behavior. Now, they’re going to have consequences, and they become adult criminals and that’s not what we want.”
Low risk, high need
Eligibility for youth offender programs varies according to the crime and criminal history. Juvenile offenders arrested for minor crimes can be diverted to a Youth Service Bureau, bypassing the criminal justice system entirely in favor of a community-based approach.
Mallory Deprey, executive director of the Youth Services Bureau in New Britain, said their bureau has a success rate of 90 percent or higher in preventing juveniles from committing further crimes. The program depends on the needs of the child — a teen arrested for fighting might need anger management, and someone who steals from a store might need a job to earn some pocket money, or something to keep his hands busy.
“You have to build relationships. You have to be consistent. There has to be an incentive,” she said. “Identify what their goals are. What do they want to see in their future? Make it about them.”
Bromley said that many of the Youth Service Bureaus and Juvenile Review Boards are over capacity with cases. She said there’s a need for more case management and a greater ability to offer diversionary programs to “low-risk” youth.
“There exists the infrastructure to provide services for lower-risk kids, but because of lack of support and funding, it’s difficult to fully invest in the process,” she said. “These are kids that have a lot going on … Even if their risk level is low, their level of need is high.”
She said that out of about 90 Juvenile Review Boards around the state, about 35 receive funding through a Juvenile Review Board Support and Enhancement grant. Three cities – Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven – are fully funded through the state. The remaining 50 review boards are not eligible for the grant funding. Those that do receive grant money receive between $2,000 and $31,000 per year — not enough, she said, to support what they need.
“Staffing can be an issue at a lot of Youth Service Bureaus,” she said. “There just aren’t enough hours in the day, or enough people.”
Other youth who are sent to court can be remanded to non-judicial programs like the Suspended Prosecution for Motor Vehicle Theft Program, preventing the need for a criminal trial.
The motor vehicle theft program has shown promise in decreasing recidivism rates for teens. Since the start of the program in October 2019, according to the Judicial Branch, 120 children have participated — 96 completed the program and 14 did not. Of the 96 who completed the program, 89 percent had not re-offended after three months, and 83 percent had not reoffended after six months. An additional 36 children are currently going through the program.
Bromley encouraged expanding the motor vehicle theft prevention program and making it available to “higher risk” youth, as well as investing in credible messenger programs — having young people, generally those who have had experience in the justice system, act as mentors for their peers who have been arrested. She also suggested supporting some of these programs with federal coronavirus relief dollars.
“They might fail”
The success rates of these programs come with a caveat: the most serious offenders — those who commit violent crimes, those who have already been on trial and those who have been through these programs more than once and have gone back to commit more crimes — are not eligible for programs like these.
As of now, serious offenders can either be placed in a detention facility or released to their parents or a guardian to await a trial. But a trial can last several months, during which time, according to the Judicial Branch, the child will not be eligible for any of the Branch’s services. If a juvenile commits another offense while in the middle of a trial, it can slow the process even further.
Returning the child to his or her home also places him or her back in an environment that might have encouraged him or her to commit the crime in the first place. Deprey said that she thinks detention is sometimes a better choice for a child because it gives them structure and support, as well as education, mental health and medical care.
“A behavior is a behavior – if it’s learned from home, then I don’t think they should be returned to home,” she said. “I’ve seen students that have been misjudged and placed in detention centers, and that has created a trauma, but [I’ve] also [seen] kids who have completely turned their life around.”
But detention has its own problems, including cost. The Judicial Branch reports that it costs about $850 a day to house a juvenile in a detention facility.
Another downside is the potential to create additional problems for youth. In a meeting of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee earlier this month, Stephan Palmer, a member of the committee and executive director of the Hartford mentoring organization Youth on Fire, said that just the experience of being detained can be traumatic for a child.
Casinghino said that people need to think about public safety and treatment programs for juveniles as going hand-in-hand, and Colangelo said that the focus needed to be on the root causes of crime, which goes back to focusing on programs, whether it be therapy, job skills or another intervention.
“We have to understand that these kids, yes, whatever program you set up, they might fail. And if they fail, if the answer is not [to] detain,” said Colangelo. “We need to bring them back in and see what steps we have to take and let them know that, ‘Hey, okay, you messed up. Let’s figure out a way to get you on the right path.’ ”