Report Says Alternative Programs Are Effective, Cost-Efficient
By JOSH KOVNER
February 27, 2013
Once a state that poured tens of millions of dollars into its juvenile prison, Connecticut is now locking up far fewer children and beefing up community programs – with no uptick in serious, violent juvenile crime, a justice-system reform group reported today.
The state Department of Children and Families has shifted money from locked-residential facilities to neighborhood programs and foster care, and is getting a better return on taxpayer dollars as a result, the Justice Policy Institute reported.
Advocates in Connecticut said while there's still plenty of work to do – particularly concerning differences in the way the system handles black children and white children – this shift away from detention centers and locked wards represents major reform.
"We've come a long way, and it only makes sense to keep going,'' said Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, based in Bridgeport. "We've shifted to a more rehabilitative model – but we're still holding kids accountable.''
One year in the $57 million Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown costs about $350,000 per child, far more than a year in foster care or in a treatment program that diverts kids from juvenile court.
Justice-system and child-welfare officials acknowledge that the focus on alternative programs has raised the threshold for locking up juvenile offenders in Connecticut. For example, there is more tolerance than there used to be for technical violations of probation and parole, such as curfew infractions, truancy, problems in school, and failed drug tests. But the officials say that in the long run, treatment programs still produce better outcomes than prison for young offenders.
"There is a higher threshold (for juvenile lock-ups), but we think it's the right policy,'' said William H. Carbone, head of the Judicial Branch's Court Support Services Division. "All of the indicators are going in the right direction: the recidivism rate is down and the completion rate for the treatment programs is up.
"There was a time when we had zero tolerance for violations,'' Carbone continued. "A kid could be returned to jail for missing school. Well, what did that accomplish, other than helping the kid form relationships with more hardened kids? And it doesn't improve the school behavior. What happened was it increased the likelihood that the kid would just go further into the system.''
Carbone said probation officers now use a system of "graduated sanctions,'' meaning they'll counsel young offenders or confine them to their house before applying for a violation-of-probation warrant and sending them back to juvenile court.
Joette Katz, the commissioner of DCF, noted that legislative leaders as well as officials of the Judicial Branch, are committed to supporting "community-based solutions that are effective in helping children.''
Katz said decisions about jailing young offenders still "have to be made on an individual basis."
But she added, "Connecticut has decided that, overall, youths will have a better chance to develop into successful adults if they receive services in the community as opposed to institutional settings.''
The Washington D.C.-based justice policy group said Connecticut, Minnesota, Arizona, Louisiana, and Tennessee are states that are relying less on jail cells and more on treatment programs and foster care to try to turn around delinquent kids.
The Connecticut DCF cut residential commitments from 680 in 2000 to 216 last year, a drop of almost 70 percent, the justice institute reported.
The reduction in juvenile confinement comes even as the Connecticut juvenile system is expanding. The juvenile court now takes in most 16-year-olds who would have been tried as adults before the state adopted its "raise the age'' legislation in 2007.
The under-18 population in Connecticut's adult prisons dropped from 403 in January 2007 to 151 in July 2012, the justice institute reported.
At the same time, the Connecticut DCF expanded its public investment in "family-focused, adolescent treatment programs" from $300,000 in 2000 to $39 million in 2009, the institute reported.
Until recently, Connecticut was one of only three states that prosecuted all 16 and 17 year-olds as adults. The "'raise the age" law extended juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18, except for those accused of the most serious violent crimes.
Anderson, speaking last year at a justice conference hosted by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, cited the shift away from juvenile jail.
"Even with the addition of the 16-year-olds, the number of youth entering the juvenile court is significantly smaller than it was in the mid-2000s – 20 percent smaller,'' Anderson testified. "In fact, commitments to our training school in 2011, two years into 'Raise the Age,' were at their lowest level in years. And the outcomes? While Judicial Branch recidivism rates are falling across the board, the outcomes for the 16-year-olds are the best.''
Connecticut has also stopped jailing youths accused of "status offenses" – behavior such as truancy and running away. Instead, DCF and the court system have created a treatment network that has diverted most status offenders from court, the justice institute said.
Anderson said the next task is to reduce racial disparity in the system.
She said young black males in detention centers take longer to place in foster families or residential centers than young white males, and black high school students are four times more likely to be arrested at school than white students. Hispanic students are three times more likely to be arrested in school than whites, Anderson said.
She said, however, that the annual number of school-based arrests is beginning to decrease, as more emphasis is placed on alternative measures.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at