Connecticut may vote to try 16-year-olds as juveniles

A committee vote in the Connecticut General Assembly could bring the state one step closer to the rest of the nation in its policies regarding the prosecution of juvenile offenders.

Connecticut is one of only three states, along with New York and North Carolina, that automatically prosecute all 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults. If the bill under debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee — which has been lobbied for by Yale Law School students — passes into law, though, Connecticut’s juvenile justice system will take responsibility for the prosecution of such individuals.

Minors who have reached the age of 16 have been automatically placed in the adult justice system in Connecticut since the early 1970s, said Abby Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, which is working with other organizations to lobby in support of the bill raising the age of offenders who are tried in the adult justice system.

“It is dangerous when you try young people in the adult system because the philosophy of the juvenile system is very different from the adult system,” she said. “The adult system is purely punitive.”

Anderson said approximately 13,000 juvenile offenders were tried as adults in Connecticut last year for both major and minor offenses.

While the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance has been vocal in its public campaign to get this issue on the front burner of the state’s legislative agenda, another organization, Connecticut Voices for Children, has worked with students from Yale Law School to lobby members of the general assembly. The Juvenile Justice Team of the Legislative Advocacy Clinic at the Law School has worked closely with Connecticut Voices to bring the issue to the attention of legislators, team director Theresa Sgobba LAW ’07 said.

“We want to bring Connecticut in line with other states,” she said. “The juvenile system is designed to be not as punitive. It is rehabilitative.”

The law students have placed legislators into three groups based on their probability of voting in support of the bill and placed calls to all the senators they thought they might be able to persuade, Sgobba said. She said the widest-spread objection to the bill is that restructuring the system might cost too much. While she and the other members of her clinic dispute many of the costs opponents of the bill call prohibitive — such as the need for a new courthouse — they acknowledge that the program will take money.

“It will cost on the front end to make this change, but in the long run it will ultimately create cost savings,” because the juveniles will have a decreased chance of re-offending, she said.

But Ellen Scalettar, a policy fellow at Connecticut Voices, said that if the program is going to work, it must be well thought-out and implemented.

“We need an adequate and sufficiently funded planning process for the best, smoothest transition,” she said.

If the bill is passed, 16-year-old offenders will be moved under the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts in the first year after it takes effect, and 17-year-old offenders will be included the following year. Even if the bill takes effect, roughly 22 percent of juvenile offenders — those charged with serious offenses — will be recommended for prosecution in adult courts.

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