New Connecticut Chief Juvenile Judge Aims for Consistency in Handling Children's Cases
The numbers tell this story: Children who live in Hartford, Waterbury and New Haven regions are more likely to be arrested and enter state custody than children who live elsewhere in the state, including Bridgeport, which has the largest juvenile population.
What the numbers don't tell is why, and this is what the state's new chief juvenile judge wants to know.
"It's a bit ironic because Bridgeport has the biggest population, but we do not have the largest number of kids going through the court system," said Judge Carol A. Wolven, who before being named the chief administrative judge for juvenile matters presided for years over family and juvenile courts in Bridgeport.
"When you go into a courthouse, you should find the same policies, the same forms and the same procedures. It should be consistent throughout the state," the judge said during an interview in her chambers before heading into court earlier this month.
Meanwhile, the statistics are striking. For every 1,000 children in the Hartford region, 59 at some point last year were arrested or referred to court. In Bridgeport, however, 37 of every 1,000 of its children face criminal charges. The numbers are all according to the state's Office of Policy and Management.
What's more, the numbers show that in 2009, 2010 and last year, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury all had the highest rates of children entering the court system.
The outcomes in court also vary.
In New Haven, 26 percent of children charged with a crime end up on probation or in state custody. In Bridgeport, it's 10 percent.
"This huge discrepancy makes you wonder what's going on," said Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. "It might be a matter of recognizing that one judge seems to be a little heavy-handed and saying something to them."
When Wolven starts her new job in September -- she will work out of New Haven -- she said it will be her responsibility to make sure all 27 juvenile judges across the state handle cases consistently.
She already has a plan.
"You inquire what people do in a particular circumstance and see how it differs. You convene all the judges and talk it out. And if they can't agree then you get a smaller group and devise a policy," she said.
"When you are in your courtroom you are pretty much the boss... But I think that if a policy were put out to them they would abide by that. You can't just go in there and do your own thing. You have to abide by the law, you have to apply the facts to the law and, you know, the policies in-between."
There's also a disparity by location in how police treat black and Hispanic children, according to OPM. In 2010, the office reported that the smaller the town, the more likely it is that a black child who gets into some kind of trouble will be referred to court. The state's three largest cities were twice as likely to charge a black juvenile compared with his white peer. In small towns, the OPM report shows, police are seven times more likely to charge a black child. (See related Mirror story here.)
Different city, different problems
Valerie LaMotte, the juvenile justice expert at OPM, said the chief juvenile judge could make all the difference to ensure children are treated consistently, no matter which court they end up in.
"I don't think you will find that anyone is breaking the rules. You are just going to see different approaches," she said. She added that she has heard there are some prosecutors more adamant about moving forward with criminal charges instead of sending them to diversionary programs. "I do think this judge could come in and make things more consistent."
But Francis Carino, the state's lead juvenile prosecutor, said expecting consistent arrest rates and outcomes is not something the state should strive for.
"Juvenile court is meant to tailor the assessment and treatment. It shouldn't be the same across the board," he said.
It's also not possible to expect different communities across the state that are facing different problems to have similar outcomes, said Kevin Kane, the chief state's attorney.
"It's the prosecutor's job to determine which charges to file... Sometimes the disparity is from the different nature of the issues facing the communities. We do not need to bring upon greater consistency," he said.
Nationwide and in Connecticut, juvenile arrests have declined steadily over the past several years, but arrests for less serious incidents -- including drug possession and minor assaults -- have increased substantially, reports the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The Judicial branch has begun to allow its juvenile judges to reject cases that end up before them that they think should be handled by the school or a juvenile review board, a local non-criminal alternative; in the first six months of this policy change, the Judicial branch threw back 100 cases. Simultaneously, the courts have experienced a reduction in the number of minor cases police send to the courts.
"We have tried to standardize procedures. Judges still have considerable discretion, as do prosecutors, but we want everyone to be treated fairly and equally," said Judge Christine E. Keller, the outgoing chief administrative judge for juvenile matters. "We are now able to divert some children away from our court."
This story originally appeared at CTMirror.org, the internet site of The Connecticut Mirror, an independent, nonprofit news organization covering government, politics, and public policy in the state.
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas is an education and child welfare reporter at The Connecticut Mirror. Jacqueline has been a reporter, online editor and web site developer for The Washington Post Company's Maryland newspaper chains. She also has worked for Congressional Quarterly and the Toledo Free Press. She is a graduate of Bowling Green State University.