Second Chances: Juvenile Offenders Learn Lessons After Arrest


Connecticut will have the cut off at 17 years of age to separate juveniles from adults starting on Jan. 1, 2010. |Photo by Haris Durrani '11

Haris Durrani ’11
Opinions Editor

Connecticut will have the cut off at 17 years of age to separate juveniles from adults starting on Jan. 1, 2010. | Photo by Haris Durrani '11

Note: The arrested student interviewed for this article asked for anonymity. His name has been changed.

A juvenile arrest is a traumatic experience for most, but it might also teach important life lessons. Nevertheless, some question the juvenile justice system’s effectiveness and ability to provide opportunities for all youth regardless of social position or age.

Making the Arrest

After police arrested a group of teenagers, interviewed each individually, drove them to the local police station, and placed them in separate holding cells, at least one of the juvenile delinquents, John Doe, began to realize that he had made a mistake.

“They [my parents] cried a lot when they saw me,” Doe said. “They said it was bound to happen eventually and it’s good we learned a lesson. I believe we all did learn a lesson.”

Many said juveniles’ surroundings and psychology can lead to such mistakes.

According to Julie Horowitz, a social worker in the guidance department, adolescent students tend not to consider the long-term consequences of their actions.

Preston Tisdale, former director of special public defenders for Connecticut and steering committee member on the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparity in the Criminal Justice System, said teenagers are psychologically more prone to depression and risk-taking.

“Kids change mentally, emotionally, and physically,” Michael Federici, juvenile probation supervisor in the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters at Norwalk, said. “Throw in dysfunctional parents, throw in poverty, and the whole issue of adolescence becomes that much more complicated.”

However, some said race and class – which often differ from suburban to urban communities – can also determine who gets arrested.

Tisdale cited the Regional Youth/Adult Substance Abuse Project (RYASAP), which deals with youth crime in the greater Bridgeport region and conducts a survey of youths in grades 7-12 in that area every three years.

“Since 1999, their survey has revealed that there is a higher level of substance abuse amongst suburban high school-aged youths than urban high school-aged youths,” Tisdale said. However, the “overwhelming majority” of drug-related arrests come from urban areas.

Although the survey is conducted in the greater Bridgeport area, Tisdale said its findings apply to the rest of the state as well – perhaps including suburban Westport, although he said the frequent presence of after school programs might make the town an exception.

Tisdale said there are two different “law enforcement cultures.”

“In the urban community, it’s make the arrest and let the justice system sort it out,” Tisdale said. “The suburban mentality is to refer youths to the juvenile criminal authorities as a last resort.”

The Superior Court for Juvenile Matters at Norwalk, which covers Darien, New Canaan, Weston, Westport, and Wilton in addition to Norwalk itself, receives only about 20 percent of its total intake from those four suburban towns and 80 percent from Norwalk alone, according to Federici.

“My personal—not professional—opinion is that it’s not an over-representation of the minority,” Federici said. “It’s an under-representation of the majority. I think crimes committed in outlying towns are not as much sent to the juvenile system. I think they are diverted somehow from the system.”

Lieutenant Vincent Penna, commander of the Westport police detective bureau, suggested that there is a difference between a juvenile avoiding an arrest and police directly diverting the juvenile after an arrest.

“If he [a juvenile living in Westport] committed a crime, he gets arrested,” Penna said. “[The Norwalk Court] is the only place they go.”

Juvenile Court, Adult Court, or Juvenile Review Board?

Depending on the crime, juveniles can find themselves in one of three different systems –adult court for serious crimes like murder or rape, juvenile for more moderate charges, and a Juvenile Review Board for minor offenses.

Today, anyone below 16 is a juvenile, usually sent to juvenile court, while a 16- or 17-year-old is a “youthful offender,” usually sent to adult court.

But Connecticut’s “Raise the Age” campaign plans to include 16-year-olds as juveniles by Jan. 1 and 17-year-olds by 2012 so that they can also have the opportunities granted by juvenile courts.

Federici said the purpose of juvenile court is to keep teenagers out of the often harsher adult system.

“The juvenile court is the court of second chances – sometimes even the court of fourth or fifth chances – because we try to throw everything we can at them [juveniles] to stop them from doing it [committing a crime] again,” John Capozzi, assistant state’s attorney in the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters at Norwalk, said.

However, “Raise the Age” might cause a degree of confusion as local police prepare for the change.

“I think it’s fine the way it is,” Sereniti Dobson, a detective in the Westport police youth bureau, said. “You don’t want to change something if it’s not broken. It’s [“Raise the Age”] definitely going to cause a lot of problems.”

However, Tisdale said even the juvenile court, not just the adult court, can be a “gathering snowball” that makes it more likely for youths to continue committing crimes.

“The juvenile court – the criminal justice system – is the absolute last resort,” Tisdale said. “The last place you want to place somebody is the juvenile court, because it does what it’s supposed to do: prosecute and convict. It can be quite draconian depending on the circumstances.” He later added, “There’s always been a higher allocation of resources on the prosecutorial side.”

Tisdale said although juveniles’ records are sealed in juvenile court, those records can be accessed when the juveniles are accused of crimes as adults. He said this can make them more suspect of the crime and perhaps heighten the punishment.

One alternative to a juvenile court might be a Juvenile Review Board, where a juvenile can be sent if he or she commits lesser crimes. The punishment is often composed of counseling and community service.

According to Christine Rapillo, director of delinquency defense for the Connecticut Office of the Chief Public Defender, Juvenile Review Boards have so far prevented juveniles from repeating criminal behavior.

“For years, you had to live in rich towns to get review boards,” Rapillo said. “But now people in poorer areas like Bridgeport are getting those opportunities.”

Westport has no Juvenile Review Board; juvenile Westport residents are sent to the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters at Norwalk. Federici, a member of the Norwalk Juvenile Review Board, said it would be “cost effective” if surrounding towns helped fund the Norwalk Juvenile Review Board so it could cover the entire area.

Life in “Juvie”

The group of teenagers arrested earlier this school year spent a day in the Bridgeport Juvenile Detention Center as they awaited the court date on the first business day following their arrest.

They arrived at 1 a.m., took psychoanalysis tests, showered and changed into “juvie clothes” – green shirts and baggy pairs of jean-like pants. By then it was 5 a.m., so they were kept until 6 for breakfast.

“Juvie… it’s not advisable,” Doe said. “All the guards are scared of you because they don’t really know why you’re in there. They just know you’re a juvenile delinquent, so they treat everybody as if you’ve just committed a great crime.”

To Tisdale, jails and detention centers work like highways – “if you build them, you fill them.”

But Capozzi said juveniles are treated well. For some, the conditions of the detention center are better than in their own perhaps broken households.

Juvenile facilities are far from jails, according to Federici, and juveniles can receive counseling and schooling. Many people think of probation officers as “strictly law enforcement,” when they actually function much like social workers, Federici said. But if misbehavior continues, authorities hold the juveniles accountable for their actions by confining or detaining them.

“To put it simply, we are social workers with a really big stick,” Federici said.

Doe did say that the guards would joke with him as well.

“The authorities treated us pretty well—as well as they can treat a juvenile [delinquent],” Doe said.

Capozzi said judges do not like to keep juveniles in the detention center for long. As the holidays approach, he said some juveniles will not have an enjoyable winter break.

“It’s not the ideal situation,” Capozzi said. “But they’re there for a reason. It’s a horrible Christmas, but it’s a small price for them to pay so it won’t happen again.”

Back to School

Entering the school environment is perhaps the hardest event after an arrest, and school administrators said they do their best to help students re-acclimate to the school environment.

“Coming back to school – it was a kind of shock,” Doe said. “Some kids were like, ‘Hey you got arrested. Cool.’ Some kids got afraid of us and thought we were dangerous.”

He said the school has been extremely supportive.

“I think everybody’s human, and I think everybody makes mistakes,” Elaine Schwartz, head of guidance, said. “You have to be accountable for your mistakes, and admit it, and feel remorse – and move on from there and start fresh.”

Although Doe was not suspended or expelled, administrators can remove students from school if their presence would disturb the academic process.

Principal John Dodig said that out of his six years at Staples all students expelled have been able to graduate successfully because of the school’s positive efforts.

“My primary goal in this school is to separate the person from the deed,” Dodig said.