The Charger Blog

University Researchers and Experts Help Lead Statewide Push for Juvenile Justice Reform

Members of the University’s Tow Youth Justice Institute are at the forefront of a discussion among Connecticut lawmakers and advocates who are seeking data-driven solutions to prevent car thefts and youth crime.

Aug 23, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

The University’s Tow Youth Justice Institute at the Capitol
The University’s Tow Youth Justice Institute was part of a recent press conference at the State Capitol.

A drop of 77 percent. That’s the decrease in motor vehicle theft in Connecticut from 1991 to 2019 – compared to a 43 percent decrease nationally, according to the University of New Haven’s Tow Youth Justice Institute (TYJI).

Amid recent headlines about car thefts and juvenile crime, there has been a push for harsher punishments for teen offenders, but members of the TYJI say just the opposite is needed.

The TYJI has been leading the statewide charge to reform juvenile justice, and they recently joined lawmakers and community advocates, including those from the Connecticut Justice Alliance (CTJA) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU-CT), to hold a press conference at the State Capitol discussing data-driven solutions to prevent car thefts and youth crime. They argue that, instead of incarcerating teens, offering a plan of action to provide resources to support their specific needs would be better for them and for their communities.

“I stand with youth, their families, and our communities as we work together to identify the needs and amplify the solutions offered in order to ensure safety and positive well-beings for those who live in Connecticut,” said Danielle Cooper, Ph.D., CPP, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University and director of research for TYJI. “Youth who are involved in car thefts need services and adults who will stand up for their needs. This can be accomplished without throwing away the decades of progress made for youth justice reform in general throughout Connecticut.”

‘Lock your cars…it’s good advice’

The hope was that the press conference would foster a conversation about juvenile justice and reform. The group says that more arrests and/or tougher punishments can actually lead to higher rates of recidivism. The TYJI says there has been no significant increase in overall juvenile crime in recent years, including motor vehicle theft.

Mike Lawlor, Ph.D
Mike Lawlor, Ph.D., discusses car theft at the press conference.

Car theft, which has been gaining significant attention nationwide, was a focus of the press conference. Experts say the recent increase in car thefts across the nation is largely driven by key fobs being left in cars. They are working together with victims of these crimes, as well as victim advocacy groups, to include their input in coming up with possible solutions.

Mike Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice and a nationally recognized expert on criminal justice reform, offered one solution to the problem that would not require reform or additional funding for communities or law enforcement agencies.

“Lock your cars,” said Lawlor, who served 24 years as a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives and eight years as undersecretary for criminal justice to former Governor Dannel Malloy. “People leave their cars unlocked with the key fobs in the car. This isn’t blaming the victim, it’s good advice.”

‘Make a difference in the lives of all young people in Connecticut’

A university, state, and private partnership established to lead the way for juvenile justice reform through engagement of policy makers, practitioners, service providers, students, communities, youth and their families, TYJI promotes the use of data-driven practices, programs, and policies related to youth justice. A legislative package TYJI leaders developed was recently presented at a public hearing of the state’s Judiciary Committee. One of their most critical recommendations, the Tow Institute maintains, is raising the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction from seven to 12 years of age.

Advocates are also concerned about the youth incarceration disparity rates for teens of color. Data show Black youth are disproportionately incarcerated, and according to a recent report from the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center, Connecticut ranks third highest in the country in disparities between white and Black youth incarceration.

“This is a racial justice issue,” said Erika Nowakowski, associate director of the TYJI. “The numbers don’t lie.”

Nowakowski and her fellow experts and advocates are also speaking out against bringing more teens into the juvenile justice system without a plan of action to support their specific needs. They say the data shows that cracking down on young offenders with a “one size fits all” approach does not work to solve the problem or to get to the root of the issue.

“As an educator and legislator, I have seen firsthand how just policies, practices, and funding can make a difference in the lives of all young people in Connecticut,” said State Representative Toni Walker, co-chair of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee. “We all must dispel falsehoods, and all begin speaking the truth about what is available under the law for local authorities.”

Erika Nowakowski, associate director of the TYJI
Erika Nowakowski, associate director of the TYJI, speaks at the recent press conference.
‘We have an obligation to make sure there are adequate options’

The TYJI also disputes the argument that “nothing can be done” to hold teens accountable. A court can, under current law, incarcerate a youth in a juvenile detention center if they pose a public safety risk. Teens who are 15 years old or older and who are charged with very serious offenses are automatically transferred to the adult court.

Lawmakers and advocates hope this conversation will continue, and that it will yield more community-based supports and services based on data rather than what they call a “crack down” on teens.

“It’s clear that in recent weeks police and prosecutors have discovered how to work with the existing law to deal with juveniles they have reason to believe pose a danger to public safety,” said Prof. Lawlor. “That’s good news. Just as important, we have an obligation to make sure there are adequate options and resources in the juvenile justice system and in the community to address the risks and needs of at-risk adolescents on the front end.”