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'No decisions about us, without us': Here's what young people impacted by the justice system say will reduce youth crime

Youth Speaks Up members
Ayannah Brown
Connecticut Public
Members from the group Youth Speaks Up conduct their meeting at the Semilla Cafe in Hartford, Conn., to discuss policing in their schools and neighborhoods and the troubles of trying to create safer relationships with the police.

On Thursday at 8 p.m., Connecticut Public's CUTLINE show on CPTV will spotlight changes to Connecticut’s juvenile justice system and the voices of teenagers.

Two in the morning.

That's what time it was when the names of the group of children whose lives have been so heavily impacted by the justice system were called to testify before the legislature's Judiciary Committee on a series of bills aimed at curbing youth crime.

But it was a school night and they were asleep.

"I think they count us out," Jaqueline Swagerty, a Hartford adolescent, said of the experience.

A lot has been said as high-profile stories of young people stealing cars dominated headlines last summer: what's causing it, what will prevent these crimes, and what should happen when a child breaks the law.

Sick of adults dominating that debate about youth justice, this group of teenagers formed a group called Youth Speaks Up with the help of an organizer from the Center for Children's Advocacy.

They have a saying: No decisions about us, without us.

But youth struggled to have their voices heard as pressure mounted for legislators to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system.

"I wasn’t truly heard. I feel like I could have truly spoke about it," said Hartford teen Luna Figueroa.

The list is long of things these young people believe will keep them and their friends safe and out of trouble.

"We need more after-school programs. We need more open events. We need more of everything. And like easy to join in, 'cause we have to go through a lot to even join a program," said Luna.

They say their schools also don’t have enough mental health staff.

"My school has one therapist — but you need to wait until there's any open spots, and it's not easy. So to this day, I’m still waiting," said Luna.

They also have zero confidence that the police in their schools and neighborhoods are helping reduce youth crime.

Photos taken by teens in the Youth Speak Up group to show the constant police presence in their neighborhood on display at a recent event the group help to share their stories.
These photos taken by teens in the Youth Speaks Up group to show the constant police presence in their neighborhood were on display at a recent event the group help to share their stories.

"You’ve got a lot of SRO officers in there, but you ain't (sic) have no therapist. I’m a little confused. It seems to be like the solutions are [to] keep posting up more police, like that’s stopping anything," said Jaqueline.

This police presence in their schools and neighborhoods they say is increasing their chances of being funneled into the juvenile justice system.

They have a solution.

They want police to document when they stop pedestrians for questioning: the demographics of who they are stopping and what the reasoning is. Police in the state for years have been required to track whom they pull over and why. That transparency has shown that certain departments were disproportionately pulling over Black and Latino drivers. It also led to police departments making changes and improving. Tracking pedestrian stops would be especially helpful, they say, because most youth don't drive.

These youth also struggle with police being stationed in their schools.

"I'm actually scared of being arrested. I feel like you shouldn't feel that way in school," said Luna.

LeeAnn Neal is an attorney with the Center for Children’s Advocacy who represents children who have gotten into trouble. She also studies school arrest data with a team of people from the Judicial Branch, school districts and youth.

That data shows that in places like Waterbury and Hartford, the number of youth being arrested in school is significantly higher than other urban districts like New Haven and Bridgeport that don’t have police stationed in the schools.

"Not having the SRO directly in the school does have an impact how many students are being arrested," Neal said. "So in Waterbury, SRO might get called to an incident that maybe might be a behavioral incident, that [is] not a criminal incident that then later turns into one, and they end up getting arrested," she said.

And when youth do get into trouble, Luna said it is important to give them a better path forward.

"Some of us feel like we can't come back from what we did. They just give up, and myself and they keep doing it, and now you're going to be deeper into it."

Their work is starting to gain an audience.

Sen. Gary Winfield, the co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Commitee meets with members of the Youth Speaks Up group to hear what they think will help reduce youth crime.
Center for Children's Advocacy
Sen. Gary Winfield, co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, meets with members of the group Youth Speaks Up to hear what they think will help reduce youth crime.

“I think clearly the conversation is driven by adults. We have forgotten that this policy has impacts on those young people, and we should probably have a sense of what that impact is," said Sen. Gary Winfield, co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee. "If we if we really want their voices, we will do what is necessary to have them in the conversation, and that's going to require some changes. And that's a good thing.”

When they met with Winfield recently, they asked for a seat at the table. He supports adding a youth member to the state panel that oversees juvenile justice in the state, the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee.

Now they just need other legislators to agree to give youth a voice at that table.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas was an investigative reporter with Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project from July 2021 until August 2022.

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