In a year when much of the news out of Hartford has been about the dire condition of this state’s finances, it was a relief last week to see some good news for a change: The governor’s office announced Friday that Connecticut’s prison population continues to decline. The state now holds fewer than 14,000 inmates — the lowest level since 1994, down from a high of about 19,900 in 2008 — and that means another prison will be shut down next year.
More good news: The sharpest decrease has been among inmates under age 30.
“The farm team is drying up,” said Mike Lawlor, the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy. The school-to-prison pipeline, he said, “is shutting down.”
This drop is due in substantial part to a change in the way the state treats young offenders. In recent years, schools and police departments in Connecticut have had an alternative to the courts, in the form of juvenile review boards where children can get the therapy and treatment programs they need, along with consequences for bad behavior, without also earning a criminal record.
According to published reports, as many as 40,000 students are given out-of-school suspensions per year in Connecticut, and more than 3,000 were arrested in the peak year 2008, often for such offenses as assault or threatening behavior, possession of a small amount of marijuana, or breach of peace — a catch-all charge that can be applied to behavior that would traditionally be handled by the school.
The key value of juvenile review boards, such as those operating in Meriden, Southington, Cheshire, and many other Connecticut municipalities, is that they can take over in cases that may be too difficult for the school to handle, but without putting the young person into the criminal justice system.
Members of these juvenile review boards are typically responsible members of the community. When Cheshire’s JRB was formed, it included educators, investigators, attorneys, and a former prosecutor.
“All evidence is that if you can keep kids out of the formal criminal justice system, the odds that those kids are going to be successful in the future go way up,” Lawlor told an Associated Press reporter. “And that’s what we are seeing. They have now aged out and are not committing crimes. They are not getting arrested as adults and they are not going to jail.”
And isn’t that what we mean by “correction”?
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