Quite often, people get public safety confused with police and punishment. I believe that violence begets violence and if young people are showing that they are suffering, that they are in need of something, and are instead met with sirens, handcuffs, a jail cell, and maybe even stints in solitary confinement- there will be no positive changes for that young person, their situation will only worsen.
If Connecticut’s goal is to narrow the reasons why a young person may commit a crime, they are failing. Throughout the 2021 legislative session, and prior, there have been numerous pieces of proposed punitive legislation- some of which have died and some that have passed. I find myself having the same conversations with legislators and community members, telling them that if they want to see a change in results- they must change their input, change their solutions to issues. These solutions cannot be punishment based. It has proven to be very difficult for legislators and those in power to think outside of the box and bring true safety and health to communities. Time and time again legislators and those in power refuse to listen to the experts: directly impacted youth and their families, and truly hear what is needed in terms of supports and solutions. Punitive responses such as making it easier to detain and incarcerate a young person, expanded surveillance of young people, and the opening of more youth prisons is the answer. We know that these things do not work and until the root causes of why a young person has been forced to make a poor choice are addressed in an authentic way, with a positive solution, Connecticut citizens will be wondering why there are young people who are committing crimes and will continue to try to address that problem with harm: police, incarceration, and other punitive measures that are shown by research to not improve public safety or reduce crime.
The correct solution is investment. Investment makes communities safer. Connecticut must begin to reallocate funding from police, prisons and jails, and other forces that harm people, into communities to ensure they are being built up by the state – not broken down and punished. Communities are the experts on what they need to be successful. It is so important to listen to what young people, communities, and other system stakeholders say. That information is key to identifying gaps, needs, and what must be transformed or completely abolished. Connecticut Justice Alliance (CTJA) and its partners and allies must now move forward with renewed commitment and energy to demand investment in our children. We must all demand that the experts not be closed out of discussion about their communities – ‘nothing about us without us.’
The Connecticut Justice Alliance is a youth/adult partnership, advocacy and public policy organization that works hand in hand with young people closest to the problem, as they are the ones closest to the solution. We refer to them as our Justice Advisors. Our Justice Advisors are young people primarily 18-25 that bring their lived, experience, to our advocacy, and to our work.
In June of 2020, Connecticut Justice Alliance released a report entitled, Ending the Criminalization of Youth: One Investment at a Time. This report detailed legislative asks and calls to action for both community members and policy makers to reduce the number of youth entering the youth and adult legal systems. It was a compilation of many Vision Sessions that were held with system-impacted youth and community members who gave their recommendations for creating equitable system reform. As well as releasing a new report, we launched our campaign, #InvestInMeCT. Two years later in June of 2022, we released a new report, Ending the Criminalization of Youth: Address the Root and relaunched our #InvestInMeCT campaign. The #InvestInMeCT campaign aims to build opportunity-rich communities where all youth and families can access the resources they need to succeed. It seeks to reduce the number of system-involved youth by addressing the root causes of youth criminalization. After our initial round of Vision Sessions that were held from 2017-2019, we gathered 7 themes of system change, the root causes of youth criminalization, that revealed the stark reality that is most common in Black and Brown communities that have been intentionally divested in. The themes are: economic insecurity, housing insecurity, trauma within communities, lack of trust in a system that displays abuses of authority, a need for more positive influences and credible messengers, lack of hope, and the need for equal opportunities.
To address root causes, Connecticut must be willing to invest time, care, love, and resources into communities -- not punishment and incarceration.
CTJA believes that if these 7 themes are addressed, which all have roots in racism, young people would be in a position to thrive in the same way that youth who are from communities that are well-invested in do – these are often predominantly white communities. Addressing these root causes of criminalization means addressing the root cause of why a young person is struggling to begin with. This is hard work and it requires a coordinated response from many state agencies, programs that work with young people, and those that hold power with Connecticut’s budget. To address root causes, Connecticut must be willing to invest time, care, love, and resources into communities -- not punishment and incarceration. Communities are not in need of more dollars being pumped into police budgets – they are in need of true, long term investment in the programs, services, schools, health care institutions, grocery stores and food, etc. that are housed in their neighborhoods. Investing in these things, instead of punitive responses that do not improve public safety, is difficult and it will take time. There will not be an immediate change in behavior. After all, the government has intentionally overlooked and divested in these young people and their entire communities for centuries. Change takes time. One must ask themselves, what type of change they truly want. One that will bring about whole, healthy, and happy communities, or change that will bring about more jail cells, more police, and more pain.
We demand that Connecticut addresses the root cause of youth criminalization. Connecticut must stop over relying and overinvesting in police to maintain order. Police do not prevent crime, they show up after. We have the answers of how to address those causes in our new report, shared with us by Connecticut’s impacted youth and families. Continuous divestment in young people and communities will have poor outcomes for all of Connecticut.
Please take a moment to read this poem, written by our Justice Advisors on what it means to address the root and what true safety is to them. You can sign on to our #InvestInMeCT campaign here, please stay tuned for upcoming ways to be involved in the work to end the criminalization of youth and to address the root!
Christina Quaranta is the Executive Director of the CT Justice Alliance (CTJA), a youth-adult partnership public policy and advocacy organization located in Bridgeport, CT. We deeply appreciate her writing this blog as part of an ongoing series seeking to discuss divestment from policing and the importance of investing in our communities.