Weekly Notes: Conn. JJ System Improves as Age-Change Nears; Curfew Laws Beget Curfew Laws; Luzerne Judges Scandal Update; and more

***Connecticut a model of juvenile justice? It was pretty surprising to see that theme in the headlines of state newspapers last week. In the past decade, the state built one of the more ridiculous juvenile prisons and has been steadily ripped by reform advocates for being one of the few states to have an age of jurisdiction under 17.

But this week’s news came on the heels of a report by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, which heralds the progress made on the front of the system. Referrals to juvenile court are down 30 percent over four years, according to the alliance report, Turning It Around.

CJJA and its executive director, Abby Anderson, certainly are not satisfied completely. The age of jurisdiction was originally scheduled to move up to 18 in 2010; now, 16 year-olds will move over in 2010 but 17-year-olds will remain part of the adult system until 2012, a compromise that had everything to do with fears over incurring the cost of a massive change-over during a recession.

But pragmatically, it’s nonsense for an advocate or watchdog to purvey only bad news. “You get more flies with honey,” said Anderson. “The system has been getting better. It’s not perfect, but we’ve made remarkable strides forward.”

The improvements have come as a result of investments to help communities (especially Connecticut’s many cities with high poverty rates) intervene early in the lives of families who have become involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice system. Better assessments are taking place at the detention phase, Anderson said, and case review teams have been created to help figure out a way to keep at home juveniles otherwise destined for placement.

There are also family support centers, which have been set up around the state to help families access resources and assistance for which they are eligible. When we chatted with Anderson last year, centers were hit or miss – based on which ones actually had been funded enough to function. Now, she said, “they are all highly functional.”

It is huge that the momentum is going in the right direction leading up to the age change, even if it is being phased in slowly. The lower number of cases means fewer youths are in the facilities, and that has opened up badly needed space for older juveniles, who eventually will come into placement.

That eliminates the fear of overcrowding or a need to build in bad economic times. And even though pretty much everyone thinks that the Connecticut Juvenile Training School stinks from a structural perspective, Anderson concedes that its operation has improved. “It’s such a tough situation,” she said. “I think [CJTS is] doing a tremendous job with what it’s been given.”

***Here is a great example of curfew laws gone wild. San Juan, Texas, is planning on implementing a curfew after what local newspaper The Monitor called a “recent spike in criminal activity.”

What has caused this recent spike? According to The Monitor, “police realized teenagers from surrounding cities were coming to San Juan to commit petty crimes here.”

Those towns include McAllen, Pharr and Alamo … which all have curfews.

Can’t you can just imagine officials in those towns patting each other on the back for solving a real or imagined juvenile crime uptick with curfews? Except, of course, they didn’t; they just pushed the night-owl youths over to San Juan. And now, San Juan will institute a curfew and youth will have to pick some other town to hang out in late at night. Hmmm…wonder what that town will respond with…maybe a curfew?

That, or all these towns could find more stuff for youths to do instead of crime ranging from egging houses to robbing people.

***Here’s another absurdity found in the JJ headlines this week. Two pieces from the same day in the same state: one is an op-ed from Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman in the Fort Myers News-Press, the other is an article about the closure of a detention center and the opening of a new juvenile prison in St. Johns County from the St. Augustine Record.

Peterman: “In 2008, youth referred to the juvenile justice system dropped 1.5 percent and juvenile arrests are at an all-time low despite the steady increase in youth population in our state. Youth commitments have declined 25 percent over the past five years, from 8,790 down to 6,616. I believe these positive trends are due in large part to the effective front-end prevention and intervention efforts by state, local and community partners across the board.”

Record article: The detention center is “being shuttered to cut costs in the Department of Juvenile Justice” and the new facility is being built “to make room for Florida’s growing population of juvenile convicts, department spokeswoman Samadhi Jones.”

So Peterman’s touting Florida’s lower level of commitments, while his spokeswoman explains how they need a new facility to handle an influx of commitments. Got it.

St. Johns Chief Judge John Alexander is livid about the new prison opening while the state closes his local detention center, as he writes in this op-ed.

***A quick update on the Luzerne judges scandal. The lawyer at the center of the case since it began, Robert Powell, has pleaded guilty after spending the past few months claiming that he was just a victim of extortion by the judges. The jail time for Powell could be anywhere from 21 months to five years, or even less if he provides more information on the case. Powell agreed to  forfeit his yacht and private plane. Pretty good chance he won’t be practicing law soon either. 

*** San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom wants to lower his budget shortfall by charging the families of juvenile detainees. Newsom’s 2009-2010 budget proposal includes a daily charge of $14.30 for juvenile hall detainees and a charge of $25.80 a day for those at the minimum-security Log Cabin Ranch.

Since the absolute poorest of the families will be exempt from the fee, Newsom’s plan is legally binding under California state statute.

“State statute does allow it,” said Sue Burrell, an attorney at the San Francisco-based public interest law firm Youth Law Center. “But many people believe there are constitutional issues, and there may be a constitutional challenge to the statute.”

Constitutional or not, Burrell takes issue with the fee on a level of basic humanity.

“It’s really the policy that is so bothersome – not at all taking into account that the vast majority of families coming before the juvenile justice system are poor or working poor,” Burrell said. For “the system to come in and assess parents who are already struggling is just unclear on the concept of what we are wanting to happen. We need to be supporting people when their kids get in trouble; not punishing them.”

The fee is waived for families who earn less than 30 percent of San Francisco’s median income, which comes to around $20,000 for a family of four, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

***While we had Burrell on the line, we asked her about Aaron Hart, the Texas juvenile with an IQ of 47 who was sentenced to 100 years for sexual abuse last week. Burrell was even more dumbfounded about that than she was about the San Fran detainee fees. 

Hart, 18, of Paris, Texas, received the sentence after pleading guilty to five counts – including aggravated sexual assault – stemming from an incident in which he was found fondling a six-year-old boy. Jurors said their queries to the judge on alternatives to prison received no clear answers.

“A person with an IQ of 47 – it’s really hard to see how he could be tried,” Burrell said. “Even though having a low IQ on its own doesn’t by itself establish incompetence, it’s a really big clue.”

Hart’s attorney cited a court competency test geared for mental illness rather than mental retardation as one of his grounds for an upcoming appeal on the sentence.



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