A criminal justice report published this month indicates that Connecticut’s prison population has reached its lowest point since 1999, with the greatest reductions in the number of juvenile offenders aged 16 to 17 years old.
Since January of last year, the prison population in Connecticut has dropped by 2.6 percent, and since February 2008, it dropped by 18.7 percent, according to data from the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management. Government officials and non-profit organization coordinators said several factors contributed to the drop, including the state’s decisions in 2010 and 2012 to raise the minimum age required for adult incarceration from 15 to 17. As of 2010, 16-year-olds were considered juveniles in the eyes of the law, and as of 2012, 17-year-olds also became eligible for juvenile court. This, in turn, allows more youth to go through juvenile review boards as opposed to the more punitive criminal justice system.
“If you can keep kids from entering the juvenile pipeline and prevent expulsion, then you reduce the chance that those kids are going to commit crimes down the road,” said Mike Lawlor, the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy.
As of Jan. 1, the prison population was 16,167 — the lowest it has been since Jan. 1, 1999, when the prison population was 16,104.
Lawlor attributed the drop to a combination of factors, including better community policing, improvements in identifying high-risk offenders and behavior modification for juvenile offenders. Lawlor noted that the reduction has primarily been among youth, blacks and Latinos.
Kyisha Velazquez, the coordinator of the Juvenile Review Board at New Haven Family Alliance, said that the JRB provides an alternative and more holistic way of approaching juvenile offenders. JRB’s are prevention programs that divert juvenile offenders from the formal justice system in a way that is tailored to that particular community. New Haven established its JRB in September 2007, and most Connecticut towns and cities have one.
“What we’ve learned over the years is that there are a lot of low-risk people who get caught up in the criminal justice system,” Lawlor said. “You almost guarantee a life of crime when that happens.”
Velazquez said the JRB’s focus on restorative justice helps the young person, the family, the victim and the community to come up with a way to make the young person accountable without entering the court system.
Velazquez stressed that teaching conflict resolution and social behavioral development, as well as focusing on future goals for the youths, are key aspects to preventing young people from committing crimes.
“We look not just at their challenges, but also at their strengths,” Velazquez said. “The reason why it works is that it teaches them early on. What ends up happening is that we teach them life-long skills.”
Velazquez said that raising the age at which youths are tried as adults has allowed New Haven Family Alliance and other juvenile review boards access to 16- and 17-year-olds who otherwise would have gone into the court system. She also emphasized that both on the city and state level there have been more collaborative efforts to reduce juvenile arrests.
In 2013, violent crime on the national level dropped 5 percent. Connecticut’s violent crime dropped 10 percent and violent crime in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven dropped 15 percent.