Faced with similar problems as Washington, Connecticut turned a crisis in its juvenile justice system into an opportunity for reform.
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Mariya Perez told her mother she was trying out for the high-school volleyball team after school. That was a lie.
Instead, she ran away. When Anna got her daughter on the phone on a September evening in 2013, Mariya was already one town away. Her daughter, a straight-A student who favored church as an after-school activity, said flatly, “I’m not coming home.”
“I thought my world was going to crash down on me,” Anna Perez said.
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If this were happening in Washington, and Anna wanted authorities to help her corral Mariya’s rebellion, the family would be sent to juvenile court. The end of that process in most counties could lead to detention for Mariya because Washington’s so-called “Becca laws” are premised on the misguided idea that kids caught skipping school or running away can be scared straight.
The consequence of that policy is embarrassing: Washington leads the nation, by far, in jailing kids accused of noncriminal offenses. The Becca laws are overdue for a rewrite.
When Washington does make that change, it should emulate Connecticut’s very different approach — duplicating its approach to cases like Mariya’s — because it’s working.
A decade ago, lawmakers in Hartford, facing sharp criticism for lock-’em-up juvenile-justice policies, banned detention for noncriminal “status offenses,” such as truancy and running away.
With deliberate speed, the state switched to an innovative network of social-services hubs that coax, rather than threaten, rebellious teens to change their behavior.
The state of Connecticut took away the stick in dealing with troubled kids, but it has a big carrot: Those hubs offer free services for troubled kids and families ranging from counseling to intensive treatment. Youths can earn elaborate field trips as rewards for completing behavior-change classes, and the centers have flexible funding to buy everything from piano lessons to new beds to college scholarships.
The approach is working. Juvenile-arrest rates plunged by an astonishing 60 percent after Connecticut began reforms. The state’s juvenile-detention centers — which once housed hundreds of truants and runaways — are now so empty the state closed two of its three facilities — and it is now planning to close that one, too. Just 5 percent of status offenders who received help came back with a new case, according to the most recent data.
“If you send a kid to detention, you’re only going to further ingrain in that kid he’s an outlaw,” said Mike Lawlor, who served in Connecticut’s state House for 24 years before becoming Gov. Dannel Malloy’s criminal-justice adviser. “That might sound like touchy-feely stuff … but we did a totally different way, and you have lot fewer kids committing crimes.”
What’s the end goal?
Connecticut’s reforms were prompted by a crisis in juvenile justice. A scathing state attorney general’s investigation found horrendous conditions in juvenile lockup facilities, and a class-action lawsuit forced the state to agree to reforms. The lead plaintiff in that suit, Emily J., was a 13-year-old foster child with developmental disabilities who spent two months locked up for truancy, stuck for 21 hours a day in a poorly ventilated cell without a toilet.
That pressure helped lead to a decade of reforms, which ultimately included Connecticut raising the age at which youths charged with crimes were treated like adults. The state — with center-left politics similar to Washington — had been one of only three states that treated 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, even for minor crimes.
The first step addressed the hundreds of status offenders sent to juvenile detention. “The question was, ‘What are we actually trying to achieve?’ ” said Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, which championed the reforms. “If you put them in detention, you’re not achieving the goal of getting the kid to go to school or stop running away. All the research will say the bad outcomes — like not graduating from high school — go up when you start having those interventions.”
The powerful appropriations chairwoman in the state House, Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, didn’t need convincing. An assistant principal at an alternative school, Walker said she “saw the hopelessness after they’d been touched by the system.”
She convened a yearlong “team of rivals” planning task force stacked with lawmakers from both parties, judges, advocates and law enforcement.
“I told them, ‘We’re going to close the door and come out with legislation we can all support,” said Walker.
The new approach required judges to give up authority to send truants and runaways to jail if they didn’t follow court orders.
“Many of the judges say, ‘We’ve become irrelevant in the process,’ ” said William Carbone, who led the Connecticut court administrator’s office at the time. “If they disobey, there’s nothing we can do. Is that true? Yes. Because what they would choose to do, which is use detention and show them we mean business, does not change the behavior.”
In Washington state, judges in some counties abuse that power, filling juvenile-detention centers with truants and runaways. Statewide, 16 percent of juvenile detention admissions — or 2,779 admissions — are for status offenses, and that percentage has risen by one-third since 2012.
‘Your child is the priority’
A few days after Mariya Perez came home, she and her mother walked into a former Ann Taylor clothing factory on the outskirts of New Haven. A nonprofit agency, Junior Republic, runs a social-services center there as part of the new approach to status offenders.
Mariya was skeptical, but her mom issued an ultimatum. “You have no choice,” said Anna, who was working full time while getting treatment for thyroid cancer. “I’m not going through this and the cancer too.”
There are 12 such centers statewide costing $14 million a year total in Connecticut, which has half the population of Washington. But overall, the reforms saved the state $25 million, Walker said, largely by closing juvenile-detention centers.
The staff at Junior Republic has a relentlessly positive vibe. A snack table is stocked with treats, and case workers guarantee kids a ride to after-school group sessions where they can open up about their problems.
Getting kids’ parents to join in the effort is vital, said Ana Flamengo of Junior Republic. “The moment the family walks in the door, we make them understand your child is the priority here, and we’re going with you to solve these behaviors.”
Mariya joined all-girl support groups twice a week for four months. As a reward, her group got a free trip to see the Lion King on Broadway, and Mariya herself earned a college scholarship from Junior Republic.
“The staff always pushed me — ‘You are college material,’ ” said Mariya, now 19. “If you continue to say that, they’re going to believe it, and do it because that’s all they know. It helped my confidence, the way I looked at myself.”
Anna, too, had a realization: Mariya’s rebellion was connected to Anna’s cancer treatment. “I think it could’ve been how she was dealing with the whole thing, instead of talking about the cancer,” said Anna.
Mariya’s problems were fairly easy to fix — a one-time runaway with a strong family and otherwise good behavior. For more complicated cases, Junior Republic and the other centers can tap more intensive in-home counseling, specialized mental-health treatment and even out-of-home treatment. There are few complaints about services not being available.
The picture in Washington state is very different: In a recent survey of court officials who handle runaway-youth petitions, nearly 40 percent said they lack access to specialized services needed to help youths and families in crisis.
The end of detention?
Since becoming a national leader in juvenile-justice reform, Connecticut is now really pushing further. Gov. Malloy proposes closing the state’s last remaining juvenile-detention center — which holds just 65 kids, compared to 537 in Washington’s state-run facilities. A legislative panel in Connecticut has recommended removing truancy from the juvenile-justice code all together.
Washington isn’t attempting such aggressive reforms. The state Legislature passed a bill sponsored by state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, to encourage diversion of chronic truants away from juvenile court and to community truancy boards. This is a good first step because it could reduce Washington’s eye-popping rate of detention for status offenders.
But it is a half-measure because it does not end detention as an option for status offenders. Connecticut lawmakers recognized how inappropriate it was to lock kids up for noncriminal offenses, banned the practice and spent a year planning for an alternative.
Olympia should mirror this deliberate approach and begin planning for a time when detention is no longer the easy — and damaging — solution for skipping school or running away.