Connecticut’s first and only youth court program — originally opened with start-up funding from Yale — has closed its doors due to a lack of funding.
In 2014, a group of Yale undergrads founded Project Youth Court with a mission to provide a youth-centered approach to juvenile justice and reduce recidivism in New Haven and Connecticut as a whole. The nonprofit received a grant from Yale to open, and numerous students and other Yale community members have volunteered or worked in support of the organization since its founding. But the program shut down in early September after it was unable to renew sustainable funding. Its closing comes as Connecticut nonprofits have criticized Gov. Ned Lamont for refusing a request for $100 million of the Nutmeg State’s $2.5 billion reserve to help fund operations in nonprofits statewide.
“PYC was a peer led program which utilized restorative justice principles while reducing and preventing the escalation of juvenile crime in and out of school,” PYC Executive Director Jane Michaud told the News. “PYC offered an actual, ‘peer to peer’ model of addressing discipline and encouraging the empowerment and positive development of New Haven and surrounding town students.”
The program operated in two parts. On one hand, it was an alternative pathway for youth who were facing suspension or expulsion from their schools, but it also operated as an after-school program for high school volunteers where they could learn about law and trial court, according to Michaud. The community-based approach championed by PYC tried to address the failures of the juvenile justice system by providing a space for learning and healing outside of school or legal disciplinary procedures. Upon the successful completion of the youth court process, participants avoid a criminal record.
The group of undergraduate founders included Andrew Grass ’16 — the chair of the board of directors at the time of closing — and Joshua Feinzig ’16 LAW ’21, who wished to bring a youth court to the Elm City after seeing similar programs across the country. The group hired Michaud almost immediately after its founding and underwent a year of finding a space, creating documents and recruiting volunteers. In 2015, PYC accepted its first client.
In 2016, the youth court received $1,000 in a start-up grant from Yale University, but did not earn any further formal support despite listing Yale as a partner on its website, according to Grass. Instead, a number of Yale community members worked and volunteered for the organization over the last five years. Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins sat on the organization’s board at the time of its closing. Just last year, Valentina Guerrero ’19, along with other students from the Yale Undergraduate Legal Aid Association, planned a mentoring program, in conjunction with Michaud and PYC, that never came to fruition due to a lack of funding.
“I want to say that my time on the Board of Directors for PYC was amazing,” Higgins told the News. “Each of the board members brought a unique talent, perspective and insight to restorative justice for the benefit of juveniles here in New Haven and some surrounding towns.”
According to Grass, the board voted to suspend operations in September until more sustainable funding sources were found. In an email to the News, Michaud noted that “many adults in the community were always talking about ‘restorative justice,’” but the organization could not get the financial support it needed “to stay alive.” PYC did not inform Yale of its closure because the University was not an institutional sponsor. Representatives for Yale declined to provide further information on the nature of its relationship with the program.
“I am a mom who saw the incredible benefits of the program and recruited many of my daughter’s classmates and friends and made it a requirement for my two sons to be a part of the program,” New Haven parent Cadesha Prawl wrote in an email to the transition team of Mayor-elect Justin Elicker obtained by the News. “With the support and structure in place, PYC can be a program of restorative justice for minor level offenses by first-time offenders who can use some guidance and direction, and can be used to support a positive change in the New Haven school system.”
PYC will continue looking for sources of potential funding and exploring further partnerships in order to reestablish the program in the future, according to Grass.
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