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Reporter's Notebook: Juvenile arrests take different paths in some Connecticut towns

An Ansonia High School student jumps rope in the hallway as part of a fitness program that starts at 5:30 a.m. before school, that serves as an alternative to arrest and suspension.
Ayannah Brown
Connecticut Public
An Ansonia High School student jumps rope in the hallway as part of a fitness program that starts at 5:30 a.m. before school, that serves as an alternative to arrest and suspension.

The state of Connecticut has been making progressive changes to the juvenile justice system for a few years now. The state incarcerates kids at a lower rate than most other states.

Despite the progress, however, racial disparities remain, including in the rate of delinquency referrals for children accused of crimes.

When a child is arrested, the case can take different paths. One outcome is for the case to be referred to a juvenile review board, which some municipalities run to divert kids away from juvenile court.

These boards direct kids to programs that are meant to provide resources and supportive programming to help them improve their behavior.

To get an idea how these programs work, I recently made an early-morning visit to Ansonia High School. About half a dozen children there get up at dawn each school day and head to the gym, where they practice physical fitness with the help of school resource officer Michael Barry.

Barry says Ansonia's AM Warriors initiative is more than a workout. It's also a chance to develop important life skills, like perseverance. Children who complete the program after an arrest can have the summons in their case dropped.

But not every delinquency case ends this way. Another option is for kids to be referred directly to court, where possible outcomes can include being incarcerated or placed on probation.

The path often depends on which local decision-makers, like police departments and court officials, are involved. And from one municipality to the next, there can be significant differences in how cases are handled. Juvenile justice reform advocates say the level of discretion that exists can also introduce bias in where children are sent.

Data set to be released later this year will help lawmakers and advocates better understand the circumstances. But a preliminary analysis by The Accountability Project found stark differences in one metric that speaks to how cases are handled.

We looked at the rate of court referrals for delinquency cases over a five-year period, and found disparities statewide, and in some specific communities.

I also spoke with leaders of a workgroup studying this issue on behalf of the state’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee. They're calling for Connecticut to adopt a more standardized process to determine who gets sent to court, and who gets diverted from the juvenile justice system.

The new data being released in July will help inform the discussion. It will break down who gets access to diversionary programs by race, gender and geographic location.

Read The Accountability Project's full investigation, "Connecticut studying racial disparities in juvenile diversion programs."

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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