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University Researchers at Forefront of Statewide Efforts to Reform Juvenile Justice
The University of New Haven’s Tow Youth Justice Institute is working to reimagine and reform juvenile justice in Connecticut, leading the push for legislative change, helping to train police officers, and conducting groundbreaking research on ensuring equity and opportunity for youth who have been involved with the juvenile justice system.
June 15, 2021
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
At about the time that Kelly Orts ’15, ’17 M.S. was graduating from the University of New Haven with her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, the University’s Tow Youth Justice Institute (TYJI) was just starting its important work. She began her own work there as a coordinator, developing the new organization’s newsletter, website, and providing administrative support at legislative meetings.
After earning her master’s degree in criminal justice from the University, Orts worked as a domestic violence counselor and community educator, and then went on to supervise a high-risk male offender program in Hartford. She wanted to make an even greater impact on criminal justice by taking part in reform efforts at the state level, so she returned to the TYJI to do just that.
Orts currently serves the Tow Institute as its project manager for the Connecticut General Assembly’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee (JJPOC), which evaluates state policies across the juvenile justice system. It endeavors to limit youth entry into the justice system while reducing incarceration and racial and ethnic disparities of youth in the justice system through research, staffing, and the development of operational plans.
“I enjoy being part of something so impactful that has the potential to facilitate change,” Orts said. “I am not just a participant, but a leader in the critical discussions around incarcerated youth, racial justice, and community resources. These discussions lead to consensus building among stakeholders, drafting of recommendations, proposed bills, and, ultimately, passed legislation that will improve the lives of youth across our state and inspire other states to follow. I feel very fortunate for this opportunity, and I value the work that the TYJI does on a daily basis.”
'I strongly believe that we can do better'
Orts and her colleagues have been particularly focused on the push for legislative reform, and they recently put together a legislative package that was presented at a public hearing of the state’s Judiciary Committee. The major provisions in the package are part of a draft bill that has been approved by the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees, and the Connecticut House of Representatives will take it up next.
One of the most critical recommendations included in the package is raising the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction from seven to 12 years of age. Currently, 18 other states have a higher minimum age than Connecticut.
Reforms help us get kids the services and supports they need to have meaningful and productive lives. This is good for the kids, their families, and for the public.William Carbone ’74 MPA
Erika Nowakowski, associate director of the TYJI who has managed the Institute’s involvement with the JJPOC for the past four years, says research shows that the current juvenile justice system response for children this young is not appropriate – and that it has, in fact, proven to be harmful.
“I believe there are solutions to many of the barriers experienced by the children and families who come into contact with the justice system,” she said. “I believe it is the responsibility of our systems to not only work at coming up with solutions, but to ensure these systems are held accountable when they fall short. I strongly believe that we can do better, and that we need to do better.”
'Kids don’t need a harsh response, they need recognition and attention'
The recommendations in the bill approved by the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees include addressing quality and access to education – something that has proven to be especially critical during the pandemic. It will charge the Department of Children and Families with tracking the education of youth in the juvenile justice system and with ensuring that they are afforded the same fair treatment and opportunities.
The TYJI also recommended reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions that occur in elementary schools, citing the far-reaching consequences that these punishments can have on youth. It also recommended diversion as a more cost-effective public safety strategy than court processing for low-risk youth, an option that, it says, also helps directly address racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. The TYJI also suggested banning the use of chemical agents, such as pepper spray, in juvenile facilities as well.
Danielle Cooper, Ph.D., director of research at the TYJI, recently testified in support of the bill. Her research explores prevention as well as the impact of factors such as health, housing, and education on youth involvement with the justice system.
“The research shows that many of these kids are low-level offenders,” said Dr. Cooper, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University. “Kids don’t need a harsh response, they need recognition and attention. As policing is decentralized, so is juvenile justice.”
'I strongly believe in the ability of people to change their behavior'
The TYJI helped plan a “Fact vs. Fiction” webinar series to educate the public on the issues reflected in their recommendations. The series included panel discussions with experts in their fields, such as Ken Barone, a project manager with the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University, who discussed his research on car thefts. The series also included youth and families who have had direct contact with the juvenile justice system.
In addition to examining the root causes of car thefts, the series also included discussions on shaping a service approach in juvenile justice facilities, as well as raising the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction and decriminalizing lower offenses.
“Reforms in juvenile justice help us to avoid the chances of a juvenile becoming an adult offender,” said William Carbone ’74 MPA, executive director of the TYJI and a senior lecturer at the University. “More importantly, reforms help us get kids the services and supports they need to have meaningful and productive lives. This is good for the kids, their families, and for the public, whose safety is best served through these approaches.”
An expert on juvenile justice reform, Prof. Carbone has a sign in his office that reads, “It is better to build children than to repair men” – a quote from Frederick Douglass, the social reformer and abolitionist. Prof. Carbone says it was his experience as executive director of the Court Support Services Division of the state of Connecticut’s Judicial Branch that helped him better understand and appreciate the circumstances that bring individuals into contact with the criminal justice system – circumstances that, he says, are often out of their control.
“This is especially true with kids in which family dysfunction, school failure, and childhood trauma are the source of bad conduct,” he said. “I strongly believe in the ability of people to change their behavior from law breaking to law abiding, and I am convinced by the research that we now know how best to accomplish that. However, recovery in the adult system means overcoming many barriers, including employment and housing discrimination against offenders.”
'Helped give police officers a big picture perspective'
Prof. Carbone and his staff at the TYJI have been involved in myriad other initiatives and projects that endeavor to promote diversion and encourage prevention. The Restorative Justice Practices Project, which provides school districts statewide with training and technical assistance on alternative approaches to discipline, focuses on building engagement through relationships, communication, and empathy. It includes more than a dozen school districts each year, encouraging new policies and access to social services.
Transforming Youth Justice is a program that brings stakeholders from across the state together to build a network of youth justice reformers. Each session provides the 15 “future reformers” who attend the eight-month program the opportunity to build their leadership skills and learn how to use data to problem solve and affect reform. So far, 75 future reformers have graduated from the program.
Dr. Cooper and Lorenzo Boyd, Ph.D., vice president for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at the University and a nationally recognized leader in police-community relations, are leading the effort, training police to better understand youth and bringing youth and their families to the trainings to engage with police.
“We helped them build trust, community, and discussed their concerns,” said Dr. Cooper. “This helped give police officers a big picture perspective. If they weren’t on the same page with kids, we helped them connect and expand their perspectives.”
'I hope to continue improving our system'
In addition to the impact it is making across the state, the TYJI is creating opportunities for students at the University. Approximately two dozen students have completed internships and collaborated on research. The work has often been multidisciplinary, including, for example, members of the University’s College of Arts and Sciences, in addition to the Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences.
Orts, the JJPOC project manager, was once one of those students who found meaningful opportunities at the TYJI that prepared her for her career. Now working to facilitate groups focused on issues such as race equity, community engagement, and diversion, she is grateful for the opportunity she has to make an impact on juvenile justice across the state.
“I honestly would not be where I am today without the support and networking opportunities I had at the University,” she said. “The University, as a whole, emphasized the importance of experiential learning, which inspired me to attain both academic and professional achievements. I think it has greatly benefited my career. I hope to continue improving our system for the well-being of our youth and our communities through the TYJI.”