Children with behavioral issues need treatment, not punishment. So it is a huge relief that the state Senate approved a bill ensuring that 16- and 17-year-olds who get in trouble with the law land in juvenile court rather than adult prison.
The House should not hesitate to follow suit and approve the shift. Anything less would be inhumane.
Connecticut is one of only three states that treat this age group as adults in criminal justice matters. Under the bill, the state would continue to try as adults those youths accused of serious felonies such as rape and murder. They make up about 5 percent of the total group. The majority of 16- and 17-year-olds would have access to support programs that help younger children such as runaways and truants.
Common sense says that they will fare better in an environment geared to the needs of their age group than if they are thrown in with adult criminals. Children who are jailed as adults are more likely to be sexually abused or commit suicide. About 60 percent end up back in jail.
Time's a-wasting. This month alone, according to Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein, 13 girls ages 16 and 17 have been sent to York Correctional Institute in Niantic, the state's only adult prison for women, because there is no appropriate place for the courts to send them. Most of them violated probation by acting out in a residential treatment setting or by running away from a shelter. Their crimes are largely nonviolent, such as shoplifting or writing bad checks.
To penalize these troubled youths, many of whom have been bounced around from place to place under the care of the state, is to throw away much of their chance for a normal, productive life.
The expansion of the juvenile justice system to include them carries a steep price tag - $100 million by 2011 - for added staff, court expansion and support programs. The change would be phased in for that reason. But the commitment to those support programs must be honored. Failure to do so will cost far more in both human and economic terms.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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