On Independence Day, a Reminder That the People Still Have Power

Connecticut just made a major policy change that will protect kids and reduce crime. You probably didn’t notice. That’s understandable. The Raise the Age campaign that pushed for this legislation didn’t run television commercials or send out mailers. We couldn’t afford them.

The reform helped 16- and 17-year-olds in trouble with the law. These kids tend to be poor, not the sort to bankroll an ad campaign. They certainly are not in a position to make large campaign contributions to the people deciding their fate.

When Raise the Age started, Connecticut was one of only three states prosecuting 16-year-olds as adults, though we know kids charged as adults are more likely to reoffend and are at high risk of suicide and abuse in adult prisons. In 2010, we got 16-year-olds returned to the juvenile system. As of July 1, 2012, most 17-year-olds are also considered juveniles in Connecticut. Those few accused of serious crimes will still be treated as adults, as is the case with 16-year-olds.

Connecticut’s Raise the Age campaign was so successful that those of us who worked on it are invited to speak around the country about our tactics. Tactics seems too sophisticated a term to describe what we did. Our small, committed band of funders basically supported a staff of three. We partnered with organizations and agencies that championed the rights of children. We encouraged families to tell their stories. We sat on a lot of folding chairs and drank a lot of tea. We came out of these community meetings with allies who wrote their state representatives. The families showed remarkable courage, but, for most of us, the only resource we absolutely needed to do this work was persistence. Taken one by one, we weren’t that powerful. Together, we were a force.

That’s pretty much how I was raised to believe democracy functions: People who care passionately about something convince their fellow citizens that the cause matters. When enough people stand behind an idea, our representative government takes notice.

We built a case using research – not hype – to show how getting kids out of the adult system would lower recidivism. We made that case to legislators who’d demonstrated a strong commitment to at-risk kids and social justice. We didn't offer them contributions or huge voting blocs, just good reasons why raising the age could help their communities and the state. They listened and acted.

Election season can make it hard to believe everything you learned in high school civics class. Campaign overload has been afflicting this country for months from the presidential race alone, not to mention the various other national, state and local contests. Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are expected to exceed the $740 million the Obama campaign spent in 2008. With big money playing such a critical role in elections, Americans fear that our government becomes beholden to special interests.

No corporation or group of people stood to profit from Raise the Age. But in sticking up for the rights of at-risk kids, we all benefitted. Getting kids out of the adult system is making it easier for the state to proceed with closing prisons. It is preventing crime, because we know that kids who go through the mandated rehabilitative programs of the juvenile system are less likely to reoffend.

Certainly a single state legislative victory by a grassroots organization does not negate what’s happening to our public life on a grand scale. It does, however, demonstrate that it’s possible still for ordinary people to make change. Everything you learned in high school civics class isn’t necessarily true all the time. But we can fight to make it true some of the time.

I’m celebrating this week. I’m celebrating a reform that puts kids on a much better path to becoming productive citizens and I’m also celebrating Independence Day. In my mind, the two are linked. Only in a democracy, could the Raise the Age campaign have succeeded. Of course there are thousands more such reforms we must undertake to make our society more just and well ordered and our government more efficient. My hope is that we do not adopt a defeatist attitude toward this work. No one should ever say, “Oh, what can I do without a large war chest of cash?”

I’ll tell you what you can do. You can win.


Mississippi Joins 38 Other States, Raises Juvenile Age to Eighteen

The Mississippi state sealAn amended law that took effect July 1 made Mississippi the latest state to rethink how youth under the age of 18 are handled in criminal court. The new measure prevents most 17-year-old misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenders from being tried as adults. Certain felonies including rape, murder and armed robbery may still warrant charges in the adult court system.

Two other states, Connecticut and Illinois, passed similar reforms earlier this year bringing the national total to 39 states that view juveniles as any individual below the age of 18, according to a report issued last week by the Campaign for Youth Justice.

“This is a good news report.” Liz Ryan, director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, -- a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit focused on the issue -- told USA Today. “This really shows that there is a turning tide in the way states are treating kids in the juvenile justice system.”

Some juvenile advocates consider the amendment a positive change in the treatment of youthful offenders, but Mississippi law enforcement and juvenile officials worry it could adversely impact an already over-burdened Youth Court system.

“It’s going to create a tremendous pressure on our juvenile justice system with no increase in resource,” Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso told the (Biloxi-Gulfport) Sun Herald. “So, it’s creating pressure on a system that’s already pressed.”

Legislators in Mississippi amended the law following state budget cuts that reduced bed space and maximum detention times, among other things, in juvenile facilities. But officials failed to allocate additional funds to the Youth Court system to deal with added expenses and growing number of offenders.

It costs states more to incarcerate offenders in juvenile than adult facilities due to health, counseling and other obligations, but juvenile inmates tend to have a lower recidivism rate than their counterparts in the adult system, according to the same Campaign for Youth Justice report.

Nationally, the United States has witnessed a five-year trend of states rethinking how juveniles are handled in the criminal justice system in large part due to research in adolescent brain development.

Crimes committed by minors aren’t always done with malice because they can’t fully distinguish right from wrong, Gina Vincent, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told JJIE at a brain development conference in early May.

Only 11 states, including Georgia, still try offenders younger than 18 in adult courts for nonviolent offenses. Roughly 250,000 offenders under the age of 18 are prosecuted in adult courts annually, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice report.

Family Feud Part 2

The Georgia House of Representatives has nixed the absorption of the Family Connection Partnership and its funding into the Governor’s Office of Children and Families (GOCF), an agency created in 2008 by then-Governor Sonny Perdue. The Senate has not yet voted on the appropriations.

Officials of the GOFC had said folding the Partnership into their agency would save the state money and simplify access to information and services. Opponents of the move countered that consolidating the entities could undermine the Partnership’s commitment to community-based decision-making, jeopardize its private funding, and increase the size of state government.

The House even included notes emphasizing its decision to quash the proposed transfer of the Partnership, a 20-year-old statewide public-private collaboration with an $8 million budget. “It is the intent of the General Assembly that Family Connection Partnership remains an independent non-profit and shall not be merged into the Governor’s Office for Children and Families,” one note says. “It is the intent of the General Assembly that these funds be administered solely by Family Connection Partnership and shall not be administratively transferred by memorandum of understanding to any other state agency,” says another.

“The House demonstrated its support of the 20 years of collaborative work that we are accomplishing in every county in Georgia to improve the lives of children and families,” said Taifa Butler, the Partnership’s director of policy and communications, via email. “We are thankful for the General Assembly's continued support and for the outpouring of support that we have received across the state from our local and state-level partners. We look forward to continued conversations with the House and the Governor's Office on how we can maximize support and funding for the local collaborative work.”

The House appropriations bill also funded the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, leaving it under the judicial branch.

Last fall discussion arose about moving the commission, a 37-member panel made up of representatives of law enforcement, courts and advocacy groups from each of the state’s congressional districts, to the GOCF. The move was rejected by the state legislature in the past and opposed by many commission members. Perdue replaced a majority of those members in the closing months of his administration.

Two years ago, Perdue attempted to do away with the commission. Then, in last year’s legislative session, his office proposed cutting its budget and transferring the rest to the Office for Children and Families. The 2010 legislature rejected both proposals, instead placing the commission under the Administrative Office of the Courts, where this year’s House left it.

“We’re being treated as a very valuable asset by the legislative and executive branches and the judiciary,” said Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker, who chairs the commission.

Perdue formed the Governor’s Office of Children and Families in 2008 to fund and coordinate the state’s efforts in prevention, intervention and treatment services for children, including programs dealing with juvenile crime and drug abuse. The office also maintains statistics on juvenile arrests, detention and probation.