Catalyst Endowment Fund Begins Exploration on “Breaking the Cycle: Juvenile Justice”

Approximately 80 members and guests attended the first meeting of the 2019 Catalyst Endowment Fund at the Chrysalis Center in Hartford on March 21 to begin exploring this year’s theme, “Breaking the Cycle: Juvenile Justice.”

Hartford Foundation president Jay Williams welcomed those in attendance and discussed the Foundation’s own work on juvenile justice and how work to support youth and young adults involved in the justice system plays a significant role in the Foundation’s new strategic plan. Kathleen Costello, Catalyst Endowment Fund steering committee chair, shared a membership update and that fund members will have up to $58,000 to recommend in grants this year.  She then introduced and facilitated a lively discussion with the three engaging speakers.

Erika Nowakowski, Director, Youth Justice Initiatives at the Tow Youth Justice Institute provided an extensive overview of changes to Connecticut’s juvenile justice system since the early 1990s. She discussed how policymakers sought to make changes to an overburdened and under-resourced system, overly reliant on detention of youth for a broad range of offenses and a lack of mental health and other services. In 1999, the state consolidated state services connected to juveniles and opened the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Training School.  Nowakowski said the state had essentially built a new prison where 85 percent of youth held were there because of theft, drug possession, criminal mischief, and other nonviolent offenses. Thousands of 16 and 17-year-olds were arrested and tried as adults and severe disparities existed in the system where nearly 80 percent of those confined were Black or Latino.

Nowakowski shared progress the state has made including the passage of Raise the Age legislation to ensure that youth are not tried as adults and to create special programs to divert some youth from the juvenile court to community-based programs. In 2011, the state implemented policies to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline including the use of restorative justice programs and policies to reduce suspensions and expulsions.

Despite significant reductions in juvenile detention rates, Nowakowski stressed that much more work needs to be done:

  • Why are there significant and persistent racial and ethnic disparities between brown and black youth?
  • How can we divert youth offenders from the court process completely?
  • With kids still being incarcerated in adult facilities, are they getting services that are appropriate to their needs?
  • How do we work with schools to create a culture that responds appropriately to kids?
  • How do we develop more community-based services to help these youth and keep them out of the prison system? 

The second speaker was Abby Anderson, Executive Director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. Anderson discussed the Alliance’s work of bringing together juvenile justice advocates, gathering information and pushing it back out to aggregators and facilitators. Some examples of the Alliance’s work include efforts to reduce school-based arrests by making schools more accountable by tracking data on in-school arrests. The Alliance also worked with Connecticut Public Television to produce a well-received documentary series on juvenile justice. Anderson discussed how the Alliance’s primary focus is getting youth out of adult prisons. Like Nowakowski, she discussed the fact that the vast majority of youth in adult prisons are black.

Iliana Pujols, Director of Community Connections at Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance discussed how conversations with youth revealed that they felt like they had “no voice or choice” in what was happening to them and no understanding of what was going on. In response to this, the Alliance formed a group of justice advisors impacted by the juvenile justice system to give them a voice. From conversations with youth, the Justice Advisors came up with seven key themes that should be front-and-center in crafting effective system reform:

1. Economic insecurity

2. Housing insecurity

3. Trauma

4. Lack of trust in a system that displays abuses of authority

5. A need for more positive influences & credible messengers

6. Lack of hope

7. A need for equal opportunities

Pujols discussed how the justice advisors program that originated in Bridgeport is now expanding into Hartford and New Haven. Youth Justice Advisors have created #InvestinMeCT, a social media campaign.

The three speakers fielded a number of questions from the audience including one about the struggle of young people to try to find a job after a felony conviction. The speakers agreed that the ultimate goal is to keep youth out of prison, as it is not an appropriate setting and provides no rehabilitation or training to prepare them for when they leave.

Another question dealt with how to hold youth accountable for their actions. The consensus was that prison doesn’t do that and we should endorse restorative justice strategies that require those that ‘do wrong’ to face their victims and make amends. The speakers also pointed out that accountability works both ways, and society needs to ‘do right’ by young people.  

Other questions related to what IS working; the speakers discussed the importance of having credible messengers who understand how to speak to young people. The speakers also stressed the importance of investing in community-based services and discussed how the state missed an opportunity when they closed the juvenile training school; they could have reinvested the funds used for the school in services to support and keep children out of the justice system.

The Catalyst Endowment Fund will hold its second program of the year on June 19, 2019 at Goodwin College in East Hartford. Please contact Betty Ann Grady at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving or 860-548-1888 for more information.