Over the past three years, juvenile court judges in Connecticut handled 6,900 cases on average.
But not every young person who gets arrested ends up before a judge. Some end up before a juvenile review board, or JRB. The diversion program is largely staffed by volunteers from the community who want kids to learn from their mistakes and stay out of the juvenile justice system.
Almost 80 youth service bureaus around the state have juvenile review boards. But in larger cities like Hartford, the diversion program is funded through the state Department of Children and Families. Hartford subcontracts to non-profit The Village for Children and Families to run its juvenile review board.
Twice a week, Village case managers join community volunteers and representatives from the court system and the Hartford Police, all members of the JRB. They meet in a big sunny room that’s a lot more welcoming than a courtroom. There they hear from a young person about the events leading up to an arrest and who was impacted. Then, the JRB members offer ways the youth can positively move forward from the incident.
On the day I visited, a 14-year-old girl named Precious was there with her mom. Precious was arrested at school after she and her sister fought with another girl. Her mother Yara agreed to let me sit in as long as I only used their first names. The JRB sat in a circle that includes Precious and her mother.
After introductions, Village case manager Gloria Lewis encouraged Precious to tell the JRB about herself. "You mentioned a couple of things you like to do. Would you share some of those things with the group?" Lewis asked. Precious told them she likes singing and basketball.
The board then asked her mom Yara what’s great about her daughter.
"She’s very outgoing, she’s into everything, she sings for everything, she’s very active. She talks too much. She’s very beautiful in and out," Yara said.
Mark Anthony Wilson, Jr.
Case managers at the Village first hear about kids like Precious from the Hartford Police Department. If a child is arrested on a minor offense -- like fighting in school or shoplifting -- and has no prior juvenile court involvement, the police department hands those summons over to the Village.
It's up to the parents to decide if they want their child to go to the JRB or to court. Yara said she decided to try the JRB because she didn’t want her daughter’s arrest to affect her future.
"At first, I was going to let them believe they were going to court," Yara said. "I had them scared. When Miss Gloria called me I was up for it, because I knew it wasn’t going to follow them for the rest of their life. They had a second opportunity."
People who work in the juvenile justice system say it’s important to give adolescents that second chance.
Mark Anthony Wilson, Jr., a juvenile probation officer with the state judicial branch's Court Support Services Division, said how a young person views him or herself impacts their future behavior.
“A lot of kids continue crimes because they think their life is over because they’ve been involved with the police," Wilson said. "So they continue to do delinquent acts because they think it doesn’t mean anything anymore because they already have a record.”
Wilson is also a member of the Hartford JRB. He said the program gives kids the chance to learn from their mistakes and gives them tools to make better choices in the future. JRBs do that by connecting the youth and their families to support programs in the community.
There's a benefit to the court system, too. Francis Carino, who was Connecticut's first juvenile prosecutor and now is a supervisory assistant state’s attorney, said not every kid needs to go to court.
"We use courts for serious cases and for cases with legal issues that need to be resolved by a judge and lawyers," Carino said. "Many cases can be handled by bringing them to diversion programs like the Juvenile Review Board."
After hearing from the youth and his or her parent, JRBs will offer recommendations. At the Hartford meeting, members told Precious to write an apology to her school principal. They also gave her mother information on youth programs in their neighborhood.
After she left the meeting, Precious grinned when I asked about what she learned.
"They taught me a lesson, not to fight anymore," Precious said. "And they showed me what can happen to me in the long run. I thought about it and I'm not going to fight anymore, cause I see what can happen."
Her mother Yara reminded her what would happen if there's a next time.
"Next time it's court! The judge gonna see them and they aren't gonna be as nice as her, or Miss Gloria, or that panel in there," Yara said.
Since 2009 -- of the more than 1,000 youth who went through the Hartford JRB and were referred to case management -- 77 percent of them successfully completed the program.
Last year alone, 98 percent of kids who went through the Hartford JRB were not re-arrested. This matters because then the arrest is wiped from their record.
More youth in Connecticut could be referred to juvenile review boards in the future under a proposed juvenile justice bill before the General Assembly.
However, supporters caution this would only work if the state allocates more resources to make that happen.