Progress, Not Punishment: Connecticut Reimagines Approaches for Youthful Offenders
November 10, 2015 | Katie Meyer, Program Associate
Governor Dan Malloy of Connecticut is taking the initiative to reform juvenile justice in his state, based on scientific evidence. His suggested reforms are informed by solid research indicating that the human brain does not stop developing until the mid-20s, which extends the period of adolescence beyond the socially constructed, arbitrary age of 17 or 18. Evidence shows that our brains—primarily, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control and reasoning—continue to develop into our 20s, while other studies have found that adult-quality decision making does not develop until a person’s early 20s (Schiraldi, Western, and Bradner, 2015). Therefore, differentiating approaches within the justice system for young adults is essential to ensuring success for these individuals and for our communities.
Governor Malloy suggests raising the age of the juvenile justice system’s jurisdiction from 17 to 20, thereby removing the adult system’s expectations of cognitive maturity for people in this age range. However, it is important to note that the research differentiates these young adults from juveniles 17 and under: they have greater cognitive development than younger juveniles, but are more likely to engage in risk-seeking behavior. At the same time, they have a greater capability to grow, adapt, and change than older adults do (Schiraldi et al., 2015). Therefore, ensuring the success of individuals in this age cohort requires a unique approach, different from the standard approaches that exist currently in both the juvenile and adult justice systems.
Governor Malloy’s reforms create such an approach by providing opportunities for young adults, ages 21 to 25, who are at low risk of committing a new law violation to have their cases heard confidentially, have their records sealed, and potentially have their records expunged. This is a differentiated approach for this young adult cohort that is responsive to their level of cognitive development and their ability to grow, adapt, and change. However, this approach must be driven by the use of a validated, actuarial criminogenic risk assessment to accurately identify those youthful offenders who are at low risk of committing a new law violation.
Additionally, Governor Malloy suggests that his state look at opportunities for change to the bail bond system. This is vital reform, as the bail system across this country is broken and subjectively driven. Individuals are detained pretrial based on their ability to pay their bail, not on their safety risk to the community, their likelihood of appearing for court, or considerations of protection for witnesses and victims. This is devastating to the lives of individuals who have not been found guilty of a crime, but who are being detained for a period so long (in some cases, for years before standing trial) that they often lose their jobs, default on their financial obligations, and are removed from their families and support systems in their communities, essentially destroying the pro-social structures supporting them and their families. In a land where our justice system is to be based on an ethos of “innocent until proven guilty,” why are we incarcerating innocent people simply because they cannot pay?
The actuarial risk tools that are used to determine an individual’s pretrial risk—which considers the individual’s likelihood of appearing for trial, the safety risk to the community, and protection of witnesses and victims—are distinct and different from the actuarial criminogenic risk tools used to identify an individual’s risk to reoffend (Mamalian, 2011). Governor Malloy advocates that low-risk pretrial detainees be supervised in the community, rather than in jail. This approach is appropriate as long as the risk referred to here is pretrial risk, not criminogenic risk. Individuals who are at moderate or high risk to commit a new law violation (high criminogenic risk) may not be a safety threat to their community, victims, or witnesses, and may be very likely to appear for court (low pretrial risk). On the other hand, individuals with a low risk of committing a new law violation (low criminogenic risk) may pose a significant threat to their community, victims, and witnesses, and may fail to appear for court (high pretrial risk).
Governor Malloy has said: “We must ensure—for those with bail under $20,000—that our criminal justice system is guided not by wealth or income or privilege, but on the severity of the crime.” Research on pretrial risk indicates that severity of the crime is not the factor that must be considered, but rather the safety of the community, victims, and witnesses (Mamalian, 2011). Reframing this statement to address public, victim, and witness safety, rather than severity of the crime, would more accurately align with the research evidence.
In the end, the criminal justice system should not be guided by a person’s wealth, income, or privilege, at any level of bail. The criminal justice system should be guided by the US Constitution; research indicating effective practices and approaches; and a focus on, in Governor Malloy’s words, “progress, not punishment.”
Office of State of Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy. (2015). Press release: Gov. Malloy launches conversation on expanding “Second Chance Society” initiatives in Connecticut. Hartford, CT: Author. Available at http://portal.ct.gov/Departments_and_Agencies/Office_of_the_Governor/Press_Room/Press_Releases/2015/11-2015/Gov__Malloy_Launches_Conversation_on_Expanding__Second_Chance_Society__Initiatives_in_Connecticut/
Mamalian, C. (2011). State of the science of pretrial risk assessment. Gaithersburg, MD: Pretrial Justice Institute. Available at http://www.pretrial.org/download/risk-assessment/PJI%20State%20of%20the%20Science%20Pretrial%20Risk%20Assessment%20(2011).pdf
Schiraldi, V., Western, B., & Bradner, K. (2015). Community-based responses to justice-involved young adults, pp. 2–4. Boston, MA: Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Available at http://www.hks.harvard.edu/content/download/77657/1742659/version/1/file/ESCC-Community-BasedResponsestoJustice.pdf