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Connecticut studying racial disparities in juvenile diversion programs

Two Ansonia High School students practice judo in their school’s gym as part of a fitness program that starts at 5:30 a.m. before school. The program serves as an alternative to arrest and suspension.
Ayannah Brown
/
Connecticut Public
Two Ansonia High School students practice judo in their school’s gym as part of a fitness program that starts at 5:30 a.m. before school. The program serves as an alternative to arrest and suspension.

Every weekday at Ansonia High School, a group of about half a dozen students start their days at 5:30 a.m., running and crawling around. They jump rope, lift weights and learn judo and jiujitsu.

The district’s school resource officer, Michael Barry, runs the program. Barry said he tries to instill lessons about life along with physical fitness, like persevering through difficulties and hardship.

“I get a chance to spend way more time with them,” he said. “So you do become a mentor. Telling them that, you know, if you get up at 4:30 in the morning, you can pretty much do anything.”

For some participants, Ansonia’s so-called AM Warriors initiative also offers an alternative path through the juvenile justice system. It allows children suspected of committing crimes to avoid a court record. Those who are eligible “do time” in a structured school environment, instead of getting suspended or going to court, said Robert Lisi, the director of Ansonia’s Youth Service Bureau.

Once they successfully complete the program, Lisi sends a letter home to their parents, and the summons they received isn’t formally processed in court.

“Basically, we rip it up,” Lisi said.

Ansonia High School school resource officer and program leader Michael Barry leads a fitness program that starts at 6 am before school.
Ayannah Brown
/
Connecticut Public
Ansonia High School school resource officer and program leader Michael Barry leads a fitness program that starts at 5:30 a.m. before school.

In Connecticut, there’s a push to give more kids who face criminal charges access to diversionary programs like the one in Ansonia, which can help them get back on track and avoid harsher consequences they might face in court.

Children are funneled into these programs by adults who handle their cases. But at each step in the process, from an initial arrest, to later involvement with the judicial system, bias can influence where children are sent.

Connecticut is now working to measure disparities in access to diversion programs. State officials aim to release data in July that will break down the numbers by race, age, gender and geographic location.

But advocates say there’s already cause for concern because court referral rates already show major differences.

“More Black children, children of color, are in detention, or in youth prison here in Connecticut. So that also means that they don't have as many chances at diversion,” said Christina Quaranta, executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance.

Data released previously by the state shows Black children in Connecticut received court referrals at a rate nearly five times higher than the rate for white children during the period from 2019 to 2023. The rate was about 1.8 times higher for Latino children during that same period, state data shows.

A delinquent referral by law enforcement is the starting point for a juvenile court case. It happens after police arrest a youth suspected of committing a crime.

The disparity in delinquent referrals was even more pronounced in some individual communities. For example, the rate of court referrals for Black children who reside in Vernon was more than 14 times higher than for white children over that same five-year period.

The data describes referrals of children who reside in the community, and not referrals issued specifically by Vernon police.

The data shows Black children in the town received delinquent referrals at a rate of 199 per 1,000, compared with a rate of 14 referrals per 1,000 for white children.

For children of color, those ensuing court experiences, and the punishments that can follow, can have significant negative effects, Quaranta said.

“I think it's a bigger impact than a lot of people would expect on young kids’ psyche and how they think about themselves,” she said.

William Carbone, a former Judicial Branch official, and expert on juvenile justice reform at the University of New Haven, said the disparity isn’t necessarily surprising because many children of color in Connecticut experience things like poverty and limited access to high-quality schools.

But Carbone said he believes implicit bias also undoubtedly plays a role.

“We've made many, many great strides forward,” he said. “But we still see the degree of disproportionality that really should trouble everybody.”

The more worrying trend is in New Haven, according to Derrick Gordon and Hector Glynn, who are the co-chairs of the Racial and Ethnic Disparities workgroup of the state’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee.

More kids from New Haven have been referred to court than in any other municipality, and Black kids have been referred at a higher rate than municipalities of similar sizes. Glynn said he is also concerned by the number of court referrals increasing in recent years, when in other municipalities of similar sizes, the number of court referrals has been decreasing.

“The arrest rates are so dramatically different, that there's something going on in New Haven, there is something different,” Glynn said. “If you look at Hartford, you look at Bridgeport, you're not going to see the numbers.”

Glynn said officials have discretion in some cases over whether kids go into the juvenile court, or are diverted into programs like AM Warriors, and that needs to change.

“So you're limiting discretion, right?” Glynn said. “You don't want police making a decision on whether or not a kid gets to be put into a diversion track, it should be uniform.”

In their next workgroup meeting, Glynn and Gordon plan to discuss why some kids in some municipalities are arrested at higher rates than others, and how diversion from the justice system can be standardized across the state.

Ashad Hajela is CT Public's Tow Fellow for Race, Youth and Justice with Connecticut Public's Accountability Project. He can be reached at ahajela@ctpublic.org.

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