Jeff Cohen: This is Where We Live. I’m Jeff Cohen, in for John Dankosky. What’s an adult? And when it comes to crime, should a teenager be treated like one? Those are a couple of the questions we’ll be considering as we talk about young people in prison.
Did you know that up until 2010, 16-year-olds charged with most crimes in Connecticut were handled in the adult judicial system? And did you know that until yesterday, the same could be said of 17-year-olds? The changes were at the heart of what was called the “Raise the Age” effort, and today, we’ll talk to advocates and legal experts about how the new law has played out.
But first, last week, the US Supreme Court said mandatory life in prison without parole sentences for children under 18 convicted of murder are unconstitutional. In a split decision, the Court’s majority said sentences like that were cruel and unusual. Attorney Bryan Stevenson argued the case:
“I think the only country in the world that imposes, that imprisons, sentences on children, and I continue to believe, to say to young kids, 13- and 14-year-olds, or any juvenile, that you’re fit only to die in prison, is cruel.”
Joining us by phone to discuss the case is Randy Susskind. He works with Bryan Stevenson, and is the deputy director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, the agency that successfully represented two young people in front of the Supreme Court cases. Randy Susskind, welcome to Where We Live.
Randy Susskind: Thank you.
JC: Thanks for joining us, and thanks for doing this. If you would, just start out, and describe the two cases we’re talking about here and how they arrived at the Supreme Court.
RS: Both cases involve 14-year-olds, people who committed the crimes when they were 14. Evan Miller’s case comes out of Alabama. Evan was convicted of killing someone who was involved in a drug deal with his mother. The facts are basically that the victim came to Evan’s mother’s house to engage in drug dealing. At some point, Evan, who was 14, went back to the victim’s house with another person, and the facts are in dispute about who started a fight, but a fight began, and eventually the victim was killed. Evan was convicted of capital murder, and under Alabama law, he basically, because he was a juvenile and couldn’t be subjected to the death penalty, there was only one other option for the judge, and that was life without parole. Similarly, in Arkansas, Kuntrell Jackson was involved in a murder of a video—murder-robbery of a video store. He and two other people were convicted of going into the store and killing the owner of the video store. Kuntrell was 14 at the time of the crime. He initially was in the car. It’s unclear whether he knew exactly what was going to happen in the store. He eventually did go into the store, and the victim was shot. Just like in Alabama, even though Kuntrell was 14 at the time of the crime, when he was convicted, the judge had no choice, under the mandatory sentencing law, to sentence him to life without parole. Our office represented both Evan and Kuntrell, and challenged their sentences under the Eighth Amendment, arguing that because they were children at the time of the crime, and because they have a capacity for change, that it was cruel and unusual to sentence them to life without parole.
JC: Randy Susskind, let me ask you—there are a couple issues here—one being the punishment itself being cruel and unusual, and the other being this word that we’ve read a lot about—the word “mandatory.” Can you talk about the way that—this “mandatory,” the idea that judges or prosecutors don’t have another option for some of these sentences. What role did that play in the argument before the Court?
RS: Well, it was central to the Court’s decision. The United States Supreme Court basically held that life without parole is equivalent to, in a lot of ways, the death penalty. Children are basically being sentenced to die in prison. There’s no chance for them to get out if they’re sentenced to life without parole. The cases that have come down over the years in the death penalty context have made it clear that if you’re going to impose a death penalty, or a severe sanction like it, you have to consider the circumstances of the crime, the character of the offender—you basically have to take into account the culpability of the offender. What the Court said last week was that when you’re going to sentence a juvenile to life without parole, that you must be able to consider the status of the person as a juvenile, the capacity for change that juveniles have, the circumstances of the crime, and in both of these cases, and in cases all around the country, because certain laws require life without parole for certain crimes, judges are, or have been, unable to even consider the fact that the offender is a juvenile.
JC: Randy, let me ask you: what happens now that the Supreme Court has ruled? Do they go back to the lower court for a resentencing hearing?
RS: That’s right. The Court didn’t detail the procedures, but basically, because both of their sentences are now unconstitutional, there’s a requirement that they be resentenced.
JC: And is it possible that they could both, in theory, get life without the possibility of parole again, but through a process that is not mandatory—that doesn’t bind the judge?
RS: That’s right. Theoretically, it’s possible. The Court’s opinion made very clear that the Court believes that that should be an unusual thing that would happen, that they would actually get life without parole again, given the nature of juveniles, their capacity for change, the kids are different, and all the ideas we have as a society about children, I think the Court believes that it’s something that’s unlikely to happen.
JC: Let me ask you one other question along these lines. Bryan Stevenson, who’s your partner there in Montgomery, Alabama, spoke on your website about how children are biologically different than adults, and less responsible for their wrongdoing. That’s a quote from him. Could you talk a little bit about that, and how that frames both your arguments before the Court, and the Court’s decision itself?
RS: Sure. You know, a lot of what we say, and what we argued, is something that is rooted in science, it’s rooted in legal precedent. But a lot of it is basically just common sense. I mean, we all know that children lack maturity. They have an undeveloped sense of responsibility. And by the way, these are things that the Court articulated in its opinion last week. Everyone knows that children are more vulnerable to outside influences, to peer pressure. One thing that’s really important, unlike adults: children don’t have control over their environment. So if they’re in a situation that’s dysfunctional, that’s violent, that is difficult—crime-producing situations—they can’t leave. An adult, I think as a society, we think, if you’re hanging out with the wrong crowd, or if you’re in a situation that’s not appropriate, you sort of have the responsibility to get out, move on, go somewhere else. Children don’t have that choice. They are where they are because they can’t leave. And I think that was very important to the Court.
JC: This is a topic we’ll be touching on again tomorrow on Where We Live when Susan Campbell guest-hosts for John Dankosky. Today, this is Where We Live—we’re talking about kids in the judicial system. Joining us by phone is Randy Susskind, he’s the deputy director at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. We’re talking about kids sentenced to life in prison. What do you think about the Supreme Court’s decision? Should judges take into account age, and circumstance of a criminal, when sentencing them to prison? You can join the conversation at 860-275-7266. You can email us at email@example.com, or join us on Facebook and Twitter at wherewelive. Randy Susskind, could you talk a little bit about the role that victim’s advocates have played in arguing this topic before the Court?
RS: The people who represent victims in these cases, obviously, have been opposed to the Court intervening, and weighing in on the situation. I think a lot of people feel like the sentences are appropriate, and that basically our clients, and children throughout the country, should be sentenced to life without parole. Our view, and the Court spoke to this, is that at a minimum, the facts of the juvenile status and the circumstances of the crime should at least be considered. Because in a lot of these cases, the judges had no discretion. There was no opportunity for any of the advocates for the defendants—for the juveniles—to talk about their life, their impulsivity; to talk about the circumstances they grew up, and their difficult environment. A lot of folks who are viewing these cases, especially from the victim’s advocate side, don’t know, and wouldn’t know, anything about the defendant and the situation that they grew up in. And I think the Court’s opinion speaks to that, and basically says we should at least consider, before we impose a sentence, before we make a judgement that someone should die in prison—a 13- or 14-year-old should be sent to prison for the rest of their life—that we should at least consider the facts about their upbringing and about their juvenile status.
JC: So then, Randy Susskind, for the sake of argument, let’s agree with the Court majority and grant that punishments like the ones your clients got were cruel and unusual. How should we—those of us who are not involved in the law—think about figuring out a better, more appropriate punishment? Where do we begin on that?
RS: Well, I think the place to begin is where the Court began. At some level, they just said it’s common sense. The phrase they used is “what any parent knows.” Kids are drawn to risk; they’re rash. They don’t have the ability to assess consequences for their conduct. I think that if you look at almost every other area of the law where children are protected—children are not allowed to do certain things until a certain age, until they’re adults. Not allowed to vote, not allowed to go to war, not allowed to drive in many states until they’re 18. We know that children need protection. I think that as a society, we need to be thinking in the exact same terms as we would if we understood—the way we understand children in most every other legal and social context.
JC: Sure. The last question I have for you, Randy, before I let you go: these cases deal with two young boys in two states, but the decision has broader applicability, does it not? There are more states that have mandatory life without parole sentences for children.
RS: That’s right.
JC: Could you talk about that a little bit?
RS: The Court identified roughly somewhere between 20 and 30 states that have mandatory sentences. So the Court’s opinion last week will have application throughout the country.
JC: We’ve been speaking with Randy Susskind. He’s the deputy director at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Thank you, Randy, for joining us this morning on Where We Live.
RS: Thank you very much.
JC: We’re going to go to a break. When we come back, we’ll switch gears a bit and talk about a Connecticut law that changes how 16- and 17-year-olds arrested in crimes are treated by the justice system. I’m Jeff Cohen, in for John Dankosky. This is Where We Live.
JC: This is Where We Live. I’m Jeff Cohen, in for John Dankosky.
“On July first, all 16- and 17-year-olds will be considered juveniles, all the time. Juveniles will be diverted into more effective treatment. There will be less crime. There will be fewer juveniles in detention.”
JC: That’s Mike Lawlor, the governor’s Undersecretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning at a meeting last week. He was talking about “Raise the Age,” a relatively new law that puts 17-year-olds charged with most crimes in Connecticut in the hands of the juvenile, not the adult, judicial system. That part of the law went into effect yesterday. The same thing happened for 16-year-olds back in 2010. Today we’ll talk to advocates and legal experts about how the new law has played out. Joining us by phone is the Honorable Christine Keller. She’s finishing her second five-year term as the state’s Chief Administrative Judge of Juvenile Matters. Joining us in studio are Kevin Kane, the Chief State’s Attorney for the state of Connecticut—that makes him the state’s top prosecutor. Also in studio is Abby Anderson, the executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, an organization that advocated for the “Raise the Age” law. Good morning to everybody.
KK: Good morning, Jeff.
AA: Good morning.
JC: Thanks for joining us. I’d like to start first with Abby, if we could. Abby, I’m hoping you could give me just a brief outline of why “Raise the Age” came about, when it came about, and the circumstances that, from your perspective, made it necessary.
AA: Sure. So, “Raise the Age” has actually been something that different advocates in the state have been looking at for ten, eleven years. It really started, from our perspective, in about 2005. I was actually thinking about that this weekend. We’ve been working hard on this issue for almost exactly seven years. The process--we really looked at it, because at that time, Connecticut was one of only three states, with North Carolina and New York, where all 16- and 17-year-olds were in the adult system no matter what. So for the most minor crime, no matter what happened, there was no way for you to be a juvenile.
JC: And this goes back a long time, does it not?
AA: It does go back, a very long time. Actually Mike Lawlor has that he thinks it was in the ’70s when this was changed. So we were really out of step with the rest of the country. There’s about ten states that are at 17, but for the most part, states recognize that kids should be in the juvenile justice system until 18.
JC: So what was the effort around the new law, and what does the new law say?
AA: So what the new law says, to make it really simple, is that the default function now is that 16- and 17-year olds will be in the juvenile justice system. There are still those most serious and violent crimes for which juveniles -- and that’s 14 and up -- actually will go into the adult system, but for the most part, they’ll be in the juvenile justice system, and what’s interesting is that this law actually passed in 2007. So this isn’t something that happened overnight. The system and all the different players have been working together. The 16-year-olds came in about 18 months ago in 2010. The final step was overnight, last night.
JC: Part of the conversation here also has to do with the racial disparity -- the makeup of the kids that are behind bars. Talk to us a little bit about that, if you would.
AA: So it’s one of the things throughout the juvenile justice system. And again, this isn’t a problem that Connecticut faces on its own. It’s actually something that is throughout the juvenile justice systems, and the adult system, throughout the country. It’s actually covered under the federal Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act. Each state has to look at its rates of disparity. And what that means -- when you say disproportionate contact -- it means kids are treated differently based on the color of their skin, not on other things. Our state actually has done a terrific job, and both the state’s attorney’s office, and Judge Keller, have been involved in this, with the Office of Policy and Management’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee -- and they do terrific studies. They’ve done them for about ten years. They do this very complicated multivariate analysis that I don’t really understand, except I know it holds everything constant, and shows us places in our system where the differences in how many black or brown kids versus white kids can be based on the fact that it’s about the color of their skin, and not how much money they have, or the kind of crime they committed.
JC: Why does it matter, Abby, if a 17- or 16-year-old goes into the juvenile system, quote-unquote, versus the adult system? For those of us who don’t know what that means, could you unpack that a little bit? Does it mean services, versus not-services? Does it mean you’re behind bars with someone who’s 50, serving a life sentence, versus not? What’s the difference?
AA: Practically, the biggest difference for us was absolutely that fact -- that the whole philosophy of the juvenile system is rehabilitation and accountability. I think that’s something I want to stress. We still want 16- and 17-year-olds to have consequences for their actions, and to be held accountable for their actions -- but also to receive the appropriate services that can make sure they don’t come back. The philosophy of the adult system is about punishing you, solely. So it’s making sure they not only get the services, but also, if you look at it, in the adult system, then you have a record, and you have to check that box on all employment forms. It’s harder to get Pell grants. A lot of times, it’s harder to get housing. So you’re really sentencing a kid not only to whatever time or whatever sentence they’re going to get, but then that stays with them for their entire life.
JC: I’d like to bring into the conversation the Honorable Christine Keller. She’s finishing her second five-year term as the state's Chief Administrative Judge of Juvenile Matters. Good morning, Judge Keller.
CK: Good morning, Jeff.
JC: So, two years later, how are we doing? Eighteen months later, with 16-year-olds now in the juvenile system, what have we learned? What trends do we see?
CK: Well, the trend is that—part of the reason why the law was somewhat delayed is that everybody was concerned about the system being inundated, and not having to handle the number of new cases, when in fact, because the judicial branch, working with DCF and the public defenders and the state’s attorney and other partners, community partners, has developed so many better means of diverting children away from the system, that the number of delinquency cases actually referred to court is now down 27 percent since 2007.
JC: Judge, was the expectation that you would’ve seen an uptick in the number of 16-year-olds getting into the juvenile system?
CK: Right. We expected that. We had a prediction, and the number has actually been 13 percent less than projected.
JC: Why do you think that is?
CK: I think it’s because—there are a number of reasons. Number one, in 2007, we changed our status offender law, so that a child who violated a court order, based on having been found to be “truant” or “beyond control”—those are the non-criminal status offenses—can no longer be arrested when they violate a court order, and turned into a juvenile delinquent. I think that was a big influence. The other influence was working to actually address disproportionate minority contact. We started to beef up the parts of the system that divert children away from a court referral. The number of juvenile review boards has been enhanced, particularly in the big cities where they didn’t have them previously. Those have been funded, initially, by the court and DCF, and now they’re funded by DCF alone. We have just recently begun more school-based diversion initiatives, to ask the schools to consider using more graduated sanctions, rather than calling the police every time a child needs to be disciplined.
JC: Judge Keller, do you have the authority to return cases to schools in that kind of situation?
CK: Yes, we do. There’s a part of the statute that gives the Office of Juvenile Probation, still, the authority to review a case, to see whether the seriousness of the case rises to the level where you actually need a court referral. We’ve just started a pilot over the past several months where we’re looking at some of the referrals from the schools, and actually sending them back, and advising the schools where we think that a school discipline policy would’ve been sufficient, as opposed to an arrest for something minor, like wearing your hat in school.
JC: Fair enough. I’m going to take a quick second and say this is Where We Live. Today, we’re talking about kids in the adult judicial system. Joining us by phone is the Honorable Christine Keller. She’s finishing her second five-year term as Chief Administrative Judge of Juvenile Matters. Also, in studio, are Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, and Kevin Kane—he’s the state’s top prosecutor. Judge Keller, I have another question for you before we move on slightly. There’s another change—I think you and I were talking before—about another change in the law that happened on Sunday, that has to do with judicial discretion and who has the authority to transfer juveniles out of the system. Could you talk about that a little bit?
CK: Yes, there was a change in the transfer provisions. Abby just mentioned that if a child is 14 or up, they can be transferred. The law requires that if it’s a very serious felony, a Class A or B, the transfer is mandatory. The law also allows for the discretionary transfer of C, D, and unclassified felonies. The law has been signed, but it doesn’t go into effect actually until October 1. But with respect to the discretionary transfers now, before a child is transferred, a full hearing has to be held in the juvenile court. Previously, that wouldn’t occur until the child got to adult court, so the child had already experienced the stressful situation of finding himself transferred from juvenile to adult. And when the juvenile judge hears that transfer hearing, the juvenile judge is going to be required to make very specific findings before the child can be transferred, including whether it’s in the best interests of the child or the public; whether the child has a record; whether the child has a disability, or a mental illness; and whether the services available at juvenile can better serve the child’s needs.
JC: Judge Keller, in our first segment, we were talking about judicial discretion, and who can mandate what kind of sentence, and we’re sort of talking about that again here.
JC: It seems like, when we’re talking about kids, we talk a lot, at least this past week and on this show, about who decides. Is it the lawmakers who decide by making mandatory sentences? Or is it judges and prosecutors, I suppose, who should have that authority? Where do you weigh in on that?
CK: Well, I guess I would weigh in that I think that it’s usual in Connecticut that it’s the judge who has the discretion in sentencing, unless there’s a mandatory sentence imposed by statute. With respect to mandatory transfers in juvenile court, there’s really no discretion. If it’s an A or B felony, it goes. Now there is discretion at a later date to send the B felony back, and that’s the prosecutor’s discretion, or the court’s discretion, in the adult court.
JC: Ok. We’re talking today on Where We Live about what’s it mean to be an adult, and should young people convicted of crimes be treated like one. You can join the conversation—please do—we’re at 860-275-7266. You can email us, where we live at wnpr dot org, or join us on Facebook and Twitter at where we live. I’d like to bring into the conversation Kevin Kane. He’s the chief attorney for the state of Connecticut. Good morning.
KK: Good morning, Jeff.
JC: Thanks for joining us. Do me a favor, and just back us up, and talk about your expectations for the law, and what your role was in passing the “Raise the Age” law in Connecticut, and where we are now.
KK: Well, it’s interesting. We supported the change in the law. We did have some concerns. We shouldn’t forget that Connecticut did at the time, and still does, have what we call “youthful offender status.” When a person 16 or 17 years old—and this went into effect back in the mid-1970s—if a 16- or 17-year-old was being prosecuted for a crime, that person would be eligible to apply for youthful offender status.
JC: What does that mean? Can you break that down?
KK: That means, basically—the most important thing—was, if the application was granted, the file would be sealed as to the public, and the youth would have no record, provided he didn’t re-offend again, or commit a new crime. So, it did protect the person’s record. But, we were still in adult court. It was an eye-opener for me, because I had spent most of my time in the adult system. It was an eye-opener for me to see the differences in services available for juveniles, and I knew all along, but it didn’t impress me as great, the difference in philosophy and approach to handling juvenile crime.
JC: Leaving the philosophy aside for a second, could you talk a little bit about the services angle?
KK: Well, in services, courts are certainly freer to have alternatives to putting kids in jail. There are commitments to programs. There are programs available much more suitable for that age group. The court has more authority to directly commit juveniles to those programs.
JC: Tell me if I’m wrong, but I’m going to guess that your expectation, as a prosecutor, you probably preferred not to see people again, once you’ve dealt with them once.
JC: Lowering recidivism rates is probably one of your goals.
KK: Nothing we’d rather see more.
JC: Can you track recidivism, and what have we learned in the year and a half since we’ve been treating 16-year-olds in the juvenile system?
KK: The biggest thing we’ve learned, I think, is the drop in the intake. I think Judge Keller’s right. A lot of this has been a different approach, finding ways to divert them from the system. We did have an awful lot of cases where a lot of schools’ reaction to a problem was to call the police. And when the police are called, they didn’t have much alternative except to refer the student—the child—to juvenile. A lot more of those cases should have been, and are now, hopefully, being even more frequently handled more properly within the schools without being referred to court.
JC: How much of this has to do with—and Abby, feel free to weigh in, and Judge Keller, also—how much does this have to do with keeping kids out of the system before they get in front of a judge?
CK: Well, I just wanted to point out that the re-arrest rates for juveniles that are put on probation have decreased since 2007, with the addition of 16-year-olds, from 51 percent to 45 percent. And that’s still going down. We had a presentation from the Department of Corrections showing that young people under 18 that are incarcerated as adults, and serving sentences as adults, actually have a much higher recidivism rate than juveniles -- kids who are treated as juveniles. So I think it’s important to note that the juvenile system, because it offers so much more rehabilitative services, mental health services, family counseling, in-home therapy, is probably addressing the underlying causes of the criminal behavior in a little bit more thorough way.
JC: Judge Keller, and Abby, this is for you also -- is the juvenile system designed -- has it had to adapt? By that I mean facilities that we do have, where kids do need to go to some sort of incarcerated setting -- are they designed for 16- and 17-year-olds? I was listening to a meeting at the state last week, where the court support services folks were talking a little bit about this, and said one concern they have was that putting 16- and 17-year-olds, say, in the same location with 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds, might take some adaptation, might need a little help. Do either of you have any thoughts on that?
CK: Yes. We are looking at developing more of our community residential programs, which are alternative to the use of the detention center facilities. Using those for the younger children, and using the more secure detention facilities for the older children -- All of our detention facilities also have pods that only hold, like, 12 children, and we keep the older ones separated from the younger ones by keeping them in those different pods.
JC: Abby Anderson?
AA: Yeah, and it’s, you know, the system has always looked at those differences. You know, there’s gender seclusion in most of the programs, all those pods. You know, there’s always been the ability to keep populations separate. One of the things that is important, that we looked at, was making sure that when this happened, what we did, was sort of shift the bell curve. So, we used to have younger kids in the juvenile justice system at a little bit higher rate than we do now. So the average age of kids actually in facilities, so in those detention centers, in the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, has actually gone up a little bit, because we’re finding ways to continue to divert the younger kids. But there is absolutely the ability to keep those kids sep -- you know, if you do have a 12-year-old in one of those facilities, to kee p them separate from a 17-year-old, which we think is obviously really important. But I wanted to speak a little bit to Judge Keller’s point about the different programs and services.
JC: Sure, go ahead.
AA: We have just been really impressed by -- I mean, I think if anybody listening today, you know, if you were expecting people to sort of have all these different opinions and go at each other, it’s been a fantastic process, you know, the prosecutors and the defenders and the advocates and the courts and the Department of Children and Families to really -- we’ve all been forced to sit down at tables together for the past, you know, seven, eight years, and really, I think, appreciate, and work together, and find common ground. And that has just been really, really good for kids, but also for public safety -- you know, when Judge Keller talked about the recidivism rates. We’ve been able to -- the services that kids have, they’re working.
JC: Kevin Kane, you spoke a little bit about some concerns. What was one of your bigger concerns on the front end of this?
KK: Well, the bigger concern was the numbers, I think, and that’s -- the reduction in 16 years old has been dramatic, and, at least surprising to me. I’m not sure it was to everybody else. It certainly was to some other people because their estimates of the expenses were a lot greater before. It’s one thing very important; I think it’s very good we did this in stages. I think it’s good we did it with the 16-year-olds first.
JC: Why’s that?
KK: As we did it, A, we learned a lot. And as Abby said, we had Judge Keller, and the legislature, and different groups were there together with the police, and we dealt with problems as we recognized them, as they came along, and were able to make adjustments and predict. I think this will help a lot with going forward with the 17-year-olds.
JC: Is there one major adjustment to the system that you’ve seen that would resonate with people?
KK: There were minor adjustments. The transfer policy, for instance. Before, if the prosecutor requested a transfer, it was transferred automatically, there could be a hearing in the adult court to send it back. It may well be more appropriate to do this in the juvenile court, because the juvenile court is better able to determine what services are available to the 16-year-olds than the adult court would have been. So that’s one obvious thing that a change was made in.
JC: Judge Keller, do you share that opinion, that staggering the roll-out of the law has been beneficial?
CK: I think it was beneficial, because it gave us some time to assess what different kinds of needs the older children have -- gave us time to start building up the system, especially with the community-based diversion programs. I just want to talk about the concern about incarcerating children. We incarcerate them less and less. The number of commitments to DCF, which is involving removing a child from the home, and placing them outside, either at the training school or some other kind of congregate residential program, has decreased 70 percent in the last ten years. The number of children we’re actually holding in detention has been going down steadily since 2007. So even with the additional kids, we’re using that sort of last resort of a secure facility less and less, and we’re expanding community-based services, where we can keep the children in the home, which is really our first goal in almost every case that we see.
JC: We’re talking today about kids and crime, and how we deal with the two together. Coming up after the break, we’ll be speaking with a national advocate on youth justice, and we want to hear from you. We’ll keep our guests here in studio, and on the phone, as part of the discussion, but you can join the conversation at 860-275-7266, you can email us, where we live at wnpr dot org, or join us on Facebook and Twitter, at where we live.
JC: This is Where We Live. I’m Jeff Cohen, in for John Dankosky. Today, we’re talking about kids, crime, and punishment. Joining us by phone is the Honorable Christine Keller. She’s finishing her second five-year term as the state’s Chief Administrative Judge of Juvenile Matters. In studio are Abby Anderson, Executive Director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, and Kevin Kane; he’s the state’s top prosecutor. Also joining us now by phone is Liz Ryan. She’s President and Chief Executive Officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice, where the slogan is, “Because the Consequences Aren’t Minor.” Liz, good morning. Thanks for joining us on Where We Live.
LR: Thanks, Jeff.
JC: Hey Liz, we’ve been talking a lot about “Raise the Age,” and the “Raise the Age” campaign in Connecticut -- the idea that 16- and as of yesterday, 17-year-olds will be treated -- most of them will be treated in the juvenile judicial system, not the adult system. Could you just help us nationalize this, and give us a sense of where Connecticut is, on the horizon there, in terms of national reform efforts?
LR: Yes, absolutely, Jeff. Well, as you all were talking about, this is a great success for Connecticut. Connecticut is fast becoming a model for the nation. As a result of Connecticut’s policy reforms, a number of other states have taken action, or are looking at this issue. So for example, New York and North Carolina, both states that have similar laws to what Connecticut has, are taking a very hard look at this. And then a number of other states with laws that also allow for kids to be tried in adult criminal court have taken actions. In fact, more than a dozen states have initiated policy reforms since Connecticut changed its law. And these changes are creating opportunities for youth to access rehabilitative services in the juvenile justice system, and at the same time, increasing public safety.
JC: Is this a hard issue -- as an advocate -- is this a hard issue to sell? I don’t mean sell in a negative way, but is it a hard issue to communicate to people? Or does it resonate with people -- when you go to legislators, and you talk about the need to change -- why the delay in ramping up other states?
LR: It resonates very much with legislators and with the public. In fact, recent public opinion polls show that the public strongly favors rehabilitation for young people over incarceration and processing in the adult criminal court. Like many issues, there are a lot of competing issues in state Capitols. So we have to make the case for this. Once legislators hear the importance, and how much young people can benefit, as well as how much the community benefits, they’re usually on board.
JC: This is Where We Live. We’re talking about kids in adult prison. What do you think about Connecticut’s “Raise the Age” law? Do you have personal experience with a young person in the system? You can join the conversation. We’re at 860-275-7266. You can email where we live and wnpr dot org, or join us on Facebook and Twitter, at where we live. Could you talk a little bit, Liz Ryan, also, about the various ways -- we’ve been talking about judicial discretion, and prosecutorial discretion. The age of an offender is only one way that a child could get into the adult court system. Could you talk about the universe there?
LR: Yes. There are a number of ways that young people can end up in adult criminal court. In some states, if you are a certain age, charged with a certain offense, you can be placed in adult criminal court automatically. In other states, depending on the offense, you can be placed in adult criminal court. So there’s at least three or four different, major ways that kids end up in adult criminal court. The bottom line is every state allows for kids to be processed in adult criminal court.
JC: And so then, when you think about your priorities as you work on this nationally, where do you target your advocacy? On what issue, then?
LR: Well, we work with any organizations, individuals, and lawmakers who are interested in reversing their state’s policies on this. So we work with a variety of stakeholders on these kinds of reforms all over the country, in every region of the country. These aren’t reforms that are being championed by one major party or another; they’ve been initiated by Democrats, by Republicans, and signed into law by governors of both major parties. So it’s been tremendous to see the progress that’s been made, especially since Connecticut changed its law. It’s really leading the pack.
JC: I know one of the concerns Liz Ryan, early on, here in Connecticut, had to do with the cost of raising the age. Those cost predictions, I don’t think, have panned out as they were initially anticipated by some who had reservations. What’s your response there, and what do you tell legislators who are considering this, and fear, in this budget-conscious time, where state budgets across the country are strapped, that raising the age could cost more money?
LR: Lawmakers should really look at this in terms of a return on investment. If you invest in young people, in their future success, and you put money into programs that actually work in the juvenile justice system to rehabilitate young people, you’ll save on the long-term costs of incarcerating young people in the adult criminal justice system. So we think it’s a win-win situation for lawmakers, in that they invest the resources, and they get a greater return on the back end.
JC: Kevin Kane, you’re the Chief State’s Attorney. Could you talk a little bit about when it comes to 16- and 17-year-olds -- I generally cover the city of Hartford; there’s a lot of young people involved in violent crime here. I know you’re focusing your attention on that. How do those two intersect? Where we raise the age -- talk a little bit about what crimes are exempted from “Raise the Age,” and how we deal with the intersection of the two.
KK: Well, first of all, you look at the statute. Any A or B felony goes automatically to adult court.
JC: And what’s an A or B felony?
KK: A or B felony is murder, sexual assault in the first degree, first-degree kidnapping -- primarily, crimes of violence where a weapon is, but not necessarily --
JC: If you shoot a gun?
KK: If you shoot a gun and don’t hit anybody, no. But if you shoot a gun and kill somebody, or if you intend to kill somebody, and shoot a gun, and injure them, or even miss, if you intend to kill somebody, that’s a serious crime, and can and should come to adult court.
JC: So could we talk, then, about that 16- or 17-year-old young person with a gun who shoots and misses, and let’s say you find them -- or the police find them, and they come to you. Is this a pivotal age group, a pivotal target group, where they could’ve been in the adult system, but now, is it your hope that if they do come to you, and they’re processed through the juvenile system, that you might not see them again?
KK: Well, what we have to do is look at those cases first. And that’s why I said it’s initially looking at the statute. You have to look at the underlying offense, and the underlying activity, and see the degree of involvement or culpability in the person to make that decision. Certainly, there are young people caught up in -- most of the violence in the cities, and most of the violence in the state, is caused by a relatively very small number of people, surprisingly small. But caught up in that periphery are people who are still violent, potentially violent, but haven’t crossed the bridge entirely. There are a lot of followers.
JC: Abby Anderson, did you want to say something?
AA: Yeah, I just wanted to make a point. There’s been a lot of talk in the state about the young, violent crime. And I just wanted to draw attention to the fact that when you look at these cases, you’ll see a lot of, you know... I know in the media, the fact that there’s all these young, violent killers, apparently, sells. But when you look at it, it’s 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds who are dying. And when you look at the age of the shooters, they’re usually in their early 20s, more often than not. And so you know, having young people in their 20s shooting and killing people isn’t okay, and it’s something we need to work on, and we need to work on and get those guns off the streets, and get the guns out of the hands of these kids. But there’s been a lot of portrayal that everything that’s wrong with violence in the state of Connecticut is because we have these teenagers that are going around killing people with guns. I think that’s a misinterpretation, and a misperception of what’s going on.
JC: One question I asked earlier on in the show to Randy Susskind was what is, then, an appropriate punishment? Could you talk a little bit, for those of us who may not be that familiar with the idea of diversionary placements, and putting kids in other kinds of programs, what kind of programs are we talking about? What’s that look like?
AA: Sure. I would welcome Judge Keller jumping in on this as well. But just some of the general things that we talk about -- and let’s make a distinction here, we’re not talking about juveniles with guns at this point -- but when you talk about the common things that kids are getting arrested for, and the most common things that kids get arrested for are actually simple assault, like having, you know, a fist-fight at school, disorderly conduct, breach of peace, these kinds of things. And when you talk about, like, possession of small amounts of drugs, and those kinds of things, the kinds of programs that we’re looking at are things that involve the entire family. That’s been a huge shift for the justice system. Connecticut has really, again, led the nation in that. You know, we used to have a kid that did something wrong, pull them out of the home, pull them out of the community, stick them someplace else for a year, and then bring them back, and expect a kid to act differently in a situation that hadn’t changed. And so now, we try to work with that young person in their community, but also with the family. So programs like brief strategic family therapy, or multi-systemic therapy, where service providers actually go into the home, and deal with the young person and their larger, extended support group. So it’s looking at how do we change the behavior, and how do we help that young person make better decisions in the situation that they’re in.
JC: And the net result after the first year and a half, at least, with 16-year-olds -- you feel confident that the downtick -- we’ve heard a lot about a downtick in crime rates nationwide, and in Connecticut also. Do you feel confident that there’s a linkage between the two? That we’re seeing fewer 16-year-olds in the system because of the kind of treatment that they’re getting, say, the last time they were in the system?
AA: Well, I would hope that what’s happening is we’re catching kids before they come into the system, and then they’re not progressing to becoming the 16-year-old that we’re seeing in the system again, you know, from something that they did when they were 13 or 14. But things are going down, you know, across the country, but more so here in Connecticut, because we’ve really taken a look and focused on it, and said, hey, we know what works, we know it’s not just putting kids in cells, and we’re going to do something differently. And it’s for public safety. You know, as Judge Keller said, the recidivism rate, the reoffending rate, for 16-year-olds is actually lower than it is for the younger kids. You know, and we think that’s because a lot of these programs and services were normed nationally for kids who are 16 and 17.
JC: Judge Keller, you’ve had a chance to look at this for a long time from where you sit. You see a lot of these young people come and go through your courtrooms, and those of your peers. When you talk about this now, can you say that “Raise the Age,” so far, has been a success?
CK: Yes, I would say it’s been a success. I think that we need to keep on developing more programs now that we have older kids, who are going to need some independent living type programs, skills-building, you know, something that deals more with the youth transition into adulthood -- vocational skills. We’re upping our educational advocacy. We pay Connecticut Legal Services and the Center for Children’s Advocacy to advocate for better educational programs for these kids, because some of them are not getting the special education that they need. You know, the bottom line is in the juvenile court, we also see the abuse and neglect cases on the other side of the court. That’s how we sort of refer to it. The younger we can help children, the less we’re going to see when they hit their adolescent years. I think the biggest initiative, and the most important initiative, that was just recently launched under Commissioner Katz’s leadership at DCF, there was a convening at the State Capitol called The First Thousand Days. We know that developmentally, we create people who are driven to commit crime when they are very young, because we traumatize them, and we abuse them, and we neglect them. So I think the time is coming now where we’re really going to focus on the very young children, to see if we can prevent the kind of lack of empathy and impulse control that develops as they get older.
JC: Judge Keller, I don’t mean this to sound flip, but are we getting -- I can hear a critique coming that we’re getting soft. Is your response that hard and tough doesn’t work?
CK: It doesn’t work. Because most of the children that I see in front of me are suffering from experiences that have been traumatic. They’ve been abused, they’ve been neglected, they haven’t been provided with the right kind of an education. I mean, there’s a lot of cause and effect there, and I think we’re starting to address -- with educational reform, pre-school reforms, reforms for early childhood development and care -- those causes, those root causes. Almost every child I see has been traumatized, abused, or neglected, in the delinquency side.
JC: Kevin Kane, you’re the prosecutor at the table. Would you agree with that, that this is bigger than just crime and punishment?
KK: Well, that’s a classic example of crime and the criminal courts -- is the people who -- the criminal courts end up with the people for whom there was no other solution, no other avenue, whether it’s education, jobs, upbringing, any number of factors, the end result is some people come to the criminal courts because nothing else has worked.
JC: And with young people... are we --
KK: And there are some people who come because they’re just, you know, predatory criminals. We see those, too.
JC: But would you share Judge Keller’s thought that tough on crime, when it comes to these kids, doesn’t work?
KK: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I don’t think being tough on, on... There are time when you have to get tough because there’s no other alternative. But you have to be open to other solutions. And you have to, to the degree that it can be done, try other solutions, but we do.
JC: Abby Anderson, excuse me, very briefly.
AA: Yeah, I just think it’s interesting -- you know, “tough on crime” is a phrase, and we talk about being smart on crime, and making good decisions. And we, you know, if you’re going to make a 16-year-old go back to do a urine test every six weeks, they’re going to consider that being tough on crime.
JC: I’d like to thank all our of guests. Joining us by phone today were the Honorable Christine Keller -- she’s finishing her second five-year term as the state’s Chief Administrative Judge of Juvenile Matters -- thank you, Judge. Also, by phone, Liz Ryan -- she’s President and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice. In studio, Abby Anderson, Executive Director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, and Kevin Kane -- he’s the state’s top prosecutor. Tune in tomorrow, when Susan Campbell, former columnist at the Hartford Courant, continues the conversation on young people and violence. When violence strikes a city, as Hartford was struck last month in a weekend of shootings that left two dead, and eight wounded, you have to ask why, and how can we prevent this from happening again? Tucker Ives produces Where We Live. Catie Talarski is the senior producer. I’m Jeff Cohen, in for John Dankosky. This is Where We Live.