April 5, 2005
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
Ten years after a study
first showed that a disproportionate number of minority youth
were being locked up in Connecticut detention centers, the state
legislature has yet to take decisive action to fix the problem,
critics charged Monday.
State judiciary officials and the juvenile justice experts with
the Department of Children and Families say they are developing
alternatives to incarceration for all juveniles.
But the bottom line hasn't changed, critics and advocates said
during a public hearing before the state's judiciary committee.
Minority kids still outnumber white kids 3 to 1 in Connecticut
detention halls even though they account for less than 1 in 4
kids in the general population, according to the latest statistics.
The state locks up more kids - and more minority kids in particular
- than any other state in New England, according to a report
issued by the New England Juvenile Defender Center in Boston
two years ago.
"Connecticut must take this problem even more seriously
... in order to break the cycle that will make today's minority
juvenile offender tomorrow's [adult] inmate," said Maureen
Knight-Price, executive director of Community Partners in Action,
formerly the Connecticut Prison Association.
Price was one of several advocates who testified in support
of a proposed bill that lays out aggressive steps to address
the problem over the next several years.
The bill calls for the creation
of a "mapping" system
through which police, DCF and court authorities could identify
and monitor juvenile arrests by neighborhood, race and ethnicity.
That information would then be compared to the outcome of those
juveniles' cases (detention vs. probation) to see whether there
are sufficient support services in place to help juveniles steer
clear of trouble.
By doing so, supporters say, state and local officials can pinpoint
hot spots for juvenile crime and push for more support in areas
that are lacking. Support services can range from mentoring and
truancy reduction programs to peer mediation, respite services
and intensive in-home family counseling.
The bill also calls for state and local officials to work together
to develop a clear set of objective criteria authorities can
use in determining what to do with a troubled youngster. Having
one objective set of guidelines will reduce the chances of some
children being treated differently than others because of their
ethnicity or race, supporters say.
At the very least, the bill calls for the legislature to set
aside funds to allow some of the key measures in the bill to
be tried on a pilot basis in a large urban area.
State Rep. William R. Dyson, D-New Haven, made it very clear
he shared the advocates' concerns.
"I'm sick and tired of everyone talking about somebody
being dangerous and inevitably they are talking about someone
who is black," Dyson said. "I have a problem with the
issue of disparity ... and somewhere along the way that has to
State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, agreed with advocates that
something must be done and said this year might be the year to
do it. Walker said there is growing bipartisan support to expand
community-based programs to keep kids out of detention and costly
Officials from the state judicial branch and DCF said they too
supported the bill, at least in concept. But they said they would
prefer to continue developing programs on their own without being
confined by the strict restraints imposed in the bill if it became
"Codifying practices would remove the branch's ability
to adapt to changing needs," said Deborah Fuller, a judicial
branch spokeswoman. "A statutory requirement of joint development
... will make the process more cumbersome."
Fuller said she is also concerned about the bill's cost. Mapping,
tracking and providing intense mentoring programs come with a
cost. Neither Fuller nor advocates of the legislation could provide
a definitive estimate Monday on how much such programs would
cost in Connecticut. However, a similar bill failed in committee
last year because of the expected high cost.
The mapping concept is not new. Other states, such as California,
have used mapping successfully to target troubled areas.
Santa Cruz County in California reduced the number of Latinos
in detention from 64 percent to 46 percent since officials there
started mapping and developing alternative, culturally sensitive
programs for juveniles in 1998. Approximately one-third of the
county's juvenile population age 10 to 17 is Latino.
States have been compelled to address minority overrepresentation
in the juvenile justice system since 1992, when Congress required
states to address the issue as part of the federal Juvenile Justice
and Delinquency Prevention Act. States risked losing federal
funding for juvenile justice programs if they failed to act.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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