Many state leaders are calling for a change in Connecticut courts: Minors should no longer be tried as adults.
The so-called Raise the Age legislation, currently pending a hearing in the state legislature, aims to reverse the practice of holding 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the eyes of the law. Spearheaded in 2007 by Rep. Toni Walker and signed into law by Gov. M. Jodi Rell that same year, the law ensures that all minors remain under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system rather than the adult criminal system. And although implementation cannot move forward until the state budget is finalized, some Connecticut officials have said Raise the Age represents a worthwhile long-term investment.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield contended that the human cost — the cost of ruining minors’ lives by placing them in jail at a young age — outweighs any economic barrier that might present itself in implementing this piece of legislation, which would require extra shifts in staffing, more services within juvenile facilities and the addition of new oversight.
The state legislature in February projected a $8.7-billion deficit for the next two fiscal years.
“We can talk about all the tough economic times we want, but we always get past those … and this is something that needs to change,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
Holder-Winfield, who worked closely with Walker on this project, explained that when 16- and 17-year-olds throughout the state are put in jail, they are at high risk to “spend the rest of their life in and out of the prison system.” Walker said state lawmakers are still in budgetary negotiations with the House of Representatives and the Senate — since implementing the bill would necessitate a restructuring of state jails and additional personnel — but she said she hopes the discussion will see progress soon.
“The truth of the matter is that is what we have been doing — when are taking young people who aren’t developed and who are making mistakes, and incarcerating them instead of rehabilitating them — we are throwing off the balance of their lives,” he said.
New Haven’s director of youth services, Che Dawson, called the legislation “essential” to preserve the security of young people. More than 10,000 Connecticut youth are tried as adults each year, according to statistics from the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. And most of these youths — about 95 percent — are arrested for minor offenses.
“I believe that young people going to jail early in their lives is more damaging to them because they pick up bad habits that perpetuates bad behavior,” Dawson said.
Holder-Winfield explained that the Raise the Age legislation would be phased in over the span of two years. The state would make the transition in incremental steps: 16-year-olds in 2010 and 17-year-olds in 2012, Walker said. In addition, the logistics of restructuring the juvenile system to accommodate more minors will take time, but Holder-Winfield said the state has already begun to hire more staff for juvenile facilities.
New York and North Carolina are the other two states that prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.