The attorneys of the Center’s Racial Justice Project advocate for new laws and changes to systems and policies to address racial inequities in education, school discipline, access to behavioral health services, and treatment in the juvenile justice system.
Connecticut youth of color are subjected to policies and practices that result in educational disparities and juvenile justice involvement. Through legislative advocacy, administrative advocacy, litigation and collaborative work with communities and agencies, the Center identifies and reforms policies and practices that result in racial inequity.
The Center’s RED Reduction Project focuses on systemic advocacy to reform the policies and practices of Connecticut’s education, law enforcement and justice systems that lead to over-representation of Black and Latino youth at various points in the justice system. CCA partners with the Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP), a national organization with expertise in reducing RED, and with local stakeholders in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Hamden and Norwalk – to identify causes of RED and develop interventions. Local police departments and schools are responsible for decision-making regarding arrests and diversion; therefore, activities are specific to each city or town.
RED Reduction Committees in each city are composed of stakeholders who focus on causes and strategies for reducing RED. Committee membership includes highly-placed personnel with decision-making authority from the local public schools, the Police Department, the local Juvenile Court, Juvenile Probation, the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and community-based programs. CCA co-chairs each RED Committee with a local partner.
Each Committee meets regularly to analyze data to identify in-depth the causes of RED. CCA and the RED Reduction Committee target the identified causes with specific strategies for reduction and plans for implementation of those strategies. CCLP periodically attends meetings to present data analyses, and provides consultation on identifying causes of RED and systemic reforms that have proven effective in jurisdictions around the country.
RED reduction strategies implemented to date include:
Recognizing that personnel turnover and resistance to change can cause successful system reforms to erode or become less effective over time, the Committee revisits interventions that successfully reduced RED to determine if the interventions continue to be implemented as intended, and adjust the reforms as necessary.
Video: CCA co-chairs Connecticut’s Racial and Ethnic Disparities Committees.
Watch discussion of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Education and Juvenile Justice
Arrests of youth and punitive discipline in juvenile and criminal justice facilities contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in justice system confinement and recidivism. The punitive consequences contribute to youth getting stuck in the system, and take the place of more therapeutic responses that could address the root causes of misbehavior, teach youth interpersonal skills and alternatives to conflict. Punishing youth for misbehavior inside facilities instead of providing a treatment-oriented response reduces the likelihood that they will develop skills to avoid future conflict and continued involvement with the justice system.
The Center’s trailblazing program brings restorative justice practices inside secure facilities as an alternative to arrests and punitive consequences. CCA initially developed and piloted this innovative program at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) in collaboration with the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University and the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. The pilot was extremely successful, reducing conflict and acting-out behaviors. Major incidents and arrests decreased; arrests of youth for assaulting staff decreased by 33%. Youth and staff described a climate of improved problem-solving and communication. An October 2017 report by the CJTS Clinical Department stated that data showed an upward trend in the lessening of behavioral health symptoms (e.g., depression, anxiety, oppositionality) after the implementation of restorative practices. CJTS created a video about the benefits of the new restorative justice paradigm.
The State Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division and the State Department of Corrections are working with CCA to implement the restorative justice program in their juvenile facilities. CCA and its partners have begun implemention at two pre-trial detention programs, three secure post-disposition facilities (secure juvenile justice facilities and a youth prison), and five step-down residential facilities. The comprehensive implementation process includes:
The Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a national organization with expertise in juvenile justice, will provide assistance evaluating the Restorative Justice Program and work with CCA to disseminate the model nationwide.
The Center received a McArthur Foundation grant to enhance the Pennsylvania DMC Youth/Law Enforcement Curriculum. CCA added a mental health component to the training curriculum for Connecticut workshops.
The Center works in partnership with the Judicial Department’s Court Support Services Division, the Department of Children and Families, and community facilitators to help law enforcement understand adolescent development, traumatic stress reactions and the experiences of youth of color in interactions with officers – to help defuse interactions that could escalate into arrest. Discussions focus on bias and stereotypes, suggestions from each group to encourage positive outcomes, and the impact of mental health challenges and psychological trauma on youth behavior.
Education and effective communication are key to an encounter that remains calm rather than escalating into conflict. Interactions between officers and youth of color determine whether youth remain in the community or return to the juvenile justice system.
Sessions have taken place in Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury, with a focus on youth who are on parole or probation, and at Connecticut Juvenile Training School for youth who are incarcerated. Youth who participate in these workshops express more positive perceptions of law enforcement and new respect for officers. Officers report a better understanding of adolescent development, mental health challenges and the impact of trauma on youth behavior.
Youth and officers spend the day working beyond negative perceptions and beginning to understand each other as individuals. Feedback from youth and officers is overwhelmingly positive.
As co-counsel for the plaintiffs in Sheff v. O’Neill, the Center’s Racial Justice Project continues to represent Hartford children to provide equal educational opportunity to children of color.
The state’s Alternative Education programs disproportionately serve children of color. Thousands of students are moved to schools that operate with little accountability and inferior educational supports.
The dropout rate at some programs was almost 90%. Working with education officials, legislators, teachers and families, the Center spearheaded reform of Connecticut’s alternative education programs.
In 2014, the Center wrote and secured passage of PA 13-122, which required the State Department of Education (SDE) to evaluate each of the State’s Alternative Education programs. See Guidelines for Alternative Education Settings, SDE, Oct, 2016.
In 2015, the Center wrote and secured passage of PA 15-133, which requires Alternative Education programs to provide the same supports as regular schools and provide reports about their programs to the SDE. The Racial Justice Project is monitoring schools’ adherence in multiple cities and working with the SDE on development of statewide guidelines for Alternative Education programs.
Though progress has been made, a fourth study of Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice System concludes that at certain decision points black and Hispanic youth continue to be treated more harshly than white youth. A follow up to the 2013 CPTV documentary, The Color of Justice, The Color of Justice Revisited explores what the state is doing to help decrease unequal treatment and what effect bias may have on influencing decisions made by police officers, prosecutors, judges and the Department of Children & Families. The Color of Justice Revisited offers a timely, candid examination of how attitudes, experiences and stereotypes are impacting young people of color. 2017
The documentary includes interviews with Martha Stone, Executive Director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, and Leon Smith, Director of the Center’s Racial Justice Project.
Nationally, minority youth are more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system and are treated more harshly than their white peers. Produced by Connecticut Public Broadcasting, The Color of Justice examines racial bias in the juvenile justice system in Connecticut and throughout the U.S. The documentary examines the forces that have shaped inequities in the state’s juvenile justice system, long-term trends, and the ways in which Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) affects Connecticut youth. 2013
The documentary includes interviews with Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy.
Sam Rivera, Esq.
Senior Staff Attorney, Racial Justice Project