Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy says it’s time for the nation to return to its roots as a “second-chance society.”
“If you’re not a Native American, or your people were not brought here in slavery, everyone came here for a second chance, or a third or fifth chance,” Malloy said in a keynote address at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York yesterday.
“That’s who we are fundamentally as a nation.”
But in today’s polarized political climate, he added, America has “turned its back” on the concept of providing second chances—particularly in our approach to criminal justice, where authorities are more inclined towards punishment than rehabilitation.
Nowhere is such an approach more counter-productive than in the way many jurisdictions fail to explore evidence-based alternatives to jail for young people who get into persistent trouble with authorities, he said.
“No one should go to jail, simply because we have lost patience,” said Malloy, who has spearheaded a transformation in his state’s juvenile justice system that has made Connecticut one of the nation’s acknowledged leaders in justice reform.
Malloy was speaking to journalists selected as juvenile justice reporting fellows at a symposium on “Children and the Law,” sponsored by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice and the Tow Foundation.
The two-day conference, which continues today, featured some of the nation’s top professionals, law enforcement leaders and activists lobbying for juvenile justice reform.
Youth Incarceration Declines
The governor’s comments were echoed by many of the speakers, who noted that while progress in changing the nation’s approach to at-risk youth has moved faster than reforms in the criminal justice system—with the number of incarcerated young people dropping by nearly half in the last decade to 36,000—serious problems remain.
When news stories about children dying in jail or suffering psychological damage from incarceration causes a flurry of concern, “We should be asking why are kids (in prison) in the first place,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director and national Coordinator of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth.
“Why is there no oversight of these agencies?”
While speakers agreed that young people who commit serious crimes should be held accountable, “most of our resources should be used for the vast majority of kids who don’t pose a risk to public safety,” added Liz Ryan, president of Youth First! , a Washington, DC-based nonprofit.
Steven Marans, director of the Childhood Violent trauma Center at Yale University, said juvenile justice reforms need to begin with the recognition that many children who get in trouble have suffered deep trauma, arising from factors such as domestic violence and other family dysfunctions.
“It’s the biggest primary health care crisis that the country faces,” he said, noting that authorities need to redouble their efforts to help such children become socially functioning adults.
In Connecticut, a number of measures, ranging from raising the age at which young people can be adjudicated in adult courts to school-based diversion programs, have enabled the state to sharply reduce its juvenile detention population without endangering public safety, said Malloy, whose state has recorded one of the largest decreases in violent crime and property crime rates of any state in the nation.
Malloy said he wants to go further by raising the current age of adult jurisdiction from 17 to 20, to create a “youth justice” category.
But he also admitted that implementing juvenile justice and criminal justice reforms oriented towards giving individuals a “second chance” can also strain budgets at a time when the country appears mired in a “permanent slow-growth environment.”
The challenges of developing new approaches were underscored by discussions of the ongoing “opioid epidemic”—which is disproportionately affecting people under 25.
With the nation experiencing an upsurge in overdose deaths from prescription drugs, authorities need to develop a pro-active approach that addresses the economic and social causes of substance abuse, including family dysfunction, said Dr. Sarah Bagley, director of the Catalyst Clinic at Boston University’s School of Medicine.
‘A Nation With A Lot of Pain’
“As a society, we’re taught that pills solve problems,” Dr. Bagley said. “We are a nation with a lot of pain.”
Yesterday’s conference also heard examples of programs launched by law enforcement—often criticized for its role in exacerbating tensions in at-risk communities particularly among youth—aimed at providing ‘second chance” alternatives to jail and the courts.
In Los Angeles County, a program launched last year to identify youthful victims of sex trafficking has rescued over 97 young women while ensuring they do not face prostitution charges.
“We do not consider them ‘prostitutes’ but as victims—and traffickers are prosecuted as child molesters,” said Capt. Merrill Ladenheim, head of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Human Trafficking Bureau.
Meanwhile, the New Haven Police Department has established a program in which health clinicians ride along with police officers in patrol cars—in an effort to find alternative approaches to young people whose behavior would otherwise automatically land them into the justice system.
“Kids shouldn’t go to jail,” said New Haven Chief Dean Esserman.
Alice Popovici is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. Isidoro Rodriguez is a student journalism intern at John Jay College. They welcome comments from readers.