New Law Channeling Older Teens Into Juvenile Court
17-Year-Olds In Under "Raise The Age" Initiative
By JOSH KOVNER
July 17, 2012
New "raise the age'' legislation introduced 17-year-olds into the juvenile court system for the first time on July 1, and by Tuesday, there were 25 of the older kids sitting in detention centers across the state.
"I was sort of surprised" at the number, said Judge Christine E. Keller, the chief administrative judge of juvenile court.
But while child advocates remain concerned about young offenders languishing in juvenile detention centers, Keller and other court officials said they don't believe the addition of an estimated 4,000 annual cases involving 17-year-olds will tax the system.
The 17-year-olds will still be tried in the adult courts for the most serious crimes, and can be transferred there for lesser degrees of felonies if a juvenile judge orders it after a hearing.
Keller said the experience with 16-year-olds, who in 2010 began coming to juvenile court for all but the most serious offenses, suggests the juvenile system can handle the new influx.
That's because an increasing number of community-based diversionary programs have siphoned large numbers of cases away from juvenile court, and usually with better outcomes. And that has meant fewer repeat offenders.
As a result, despite the addition of more 3,600 cases a year involving the 16-year-olds, there were only slightly more pending juvenile cases in April 2012 (a total of 3,888) than there were in April 2009 (3,741), records show.
"There's a see-saw effect: we're getting more kids, but the diversions tip it back down. We're reducing arrests, with better results,'' Keller said.
She said it is crucial that the diversions continue and that even more treatment options for the older kids are created in the community.
When the first phase of the "raise the age" initiative opened the juvenile-court door to 16-year-olds, the legislature funded more neighborhood-based mental-health, drug-rehabilitation, and educational programs – something advocates had called for, and sued for, since the early 1990s. The juvenile courts can fashion better treatment options for troubled young people than the adult courts can, and that was the motivation behind raising the age limit for the youth courts.
As a result of the added resources for families, fewer juvenile offenders were removed from their homes last year (about 250) than in 2009 (about 300), which was before the introduction of 16-year-olds.
Over the first six months of this year, juvenile offenders of all ages waited in a detention center for an average of 64 days for placement in a treatment program. That's down from an average of 67 days over the same period last year, according to Judicial Branch records.
Attorney Martha Stone, who sued for and won better conditions and more treatment services in the juvenile justice system, said detention centers "become weigh stations'' when slots don't open up quickly in outside treatment centers or foster homes.
With the addition of the 17-year-olds, "we will watch that very carefully,'' said the Judicial Branch's William Carbone, head of the Court Support Services Division.
But he said he doesn't see a logjam occurring.
Scanning the reports he gets daily, Carbone said there were 83 juvenile offenders of all ages in the Hartford and Bridgeport juvenile detention centers on Monday, less than half of the combined 172- bed capacity.
The centers have added staff in anticipation of the 17-year-olds, but Carbone said the diversionary programs and drop in arrests continue to create space in the juvenile court system – even with older kids entering.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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