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16-Year-Olds Will Fare Better In Juvenile System

TONI N. HARP AND TONI E. WALKER

September 23, 2009

Being a legislator means watching a lot of good ideas go to an untimely grave for lack of funding, especially this year. What we cannot afford to watch is a good idea going to an untimely grave because it has had misinformation heaped upon it. That's why we have a couple of long days ahead of us to protect the Raise the Age reform from attempts to scuttle it at the eleventh hour.

Connecticut is one of only three states that prosecutes all 16-year-olds as adults, even for the most minor offenses. Most states set the age of adulthood higher, recognizing that young people are unsafe in adult prisons and that the services offered by the juvenile system lead to much lower recidivism rates. It's humane and it's smart. That's why Raise the Age, which will place nonviolent 16-year-olds under juvenile jurisdiction effective Jan. 1, received such widespread support.

Youths placed in the juvenile system get access to counseling, education and other services that make them less likely to commit future crimes and more likely to become law-abiding citizens contributing to our economy. It's not only wrong to throw away children; it's something that an aging population in difficult economic times can ill afford. Connecticut currently spends more on corrections than we do on the state's higher education system. We're paying for failure instead of investing in success.

But now this common-sense reform is the target of a well-funded campaign that exploits the economic crisis. Perhaps you've heard the radio ads calling the change an "unfunded mandate." We understand the fiscal pressures on Connecticut communities and would be very sympathetic to that argument, if it were true.

The naysayers are representing that Connecticut towns will have to build entire new police stations if the legislation is enacted on schedule. Police must maintain separation between adults and juveniles in their holding areas by federal law. So on the face of it, that might seem like a good argument. But let's look at the facts. The average community arrests fewer than one child in this age group per week. The legislation that will make Raise the Age law includes many concessions to ease the burden of processing even this small number of new juveniles. Police will not need to chase down parents to release or even to question these young people. And they can hold them in cells normally used for adults so long as separation is maintained.

Connecticut has had two years to prepare for this reform, which originally included 17-year-olds. The state is deferring the move of 17-year-olds into the juvenile system for two years, in a major compromise to reduce costs.

Clearly no town should need to change its police facilities when 16-year-olds are moved to the juvenile jurisdiction. But some things will change and change in a positive way. That's why we are so committed to this reform.

The funds to ready the state for Raise the Age are already in the budget passed by the General Assembly. The cost to towns is little to nothing. People who are philosophically opposed to Raise the Age had ample chance to make their point before the legislature passed the measure in 2007. They were ready to abandon our children's future to a punitive system. The majority of us thought instead that young people deserve a second chance to be productive citizens.

Now the opposition is trying to grab a second chance of its own, inventing outrageous cost figures in a last-ditch attempt to cut off a lifeline to our most vulnerable youths. We believe the people of Connecticut are smart enough to see through it. We think this is one good idea that will shine through, despite efforts to obscure the facts.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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