Focusing on Prevention Rather Than Punishment
Rita Papazian
Norwalk Citizen-News

A new state law that was passed this year and will go into effect in 2010 deals with raising the age from 16 to 18 for non-felony juvenile offenders to be classified adults. The new law is the culmination of a three-year grass-roots campaign called "Raise the Age," spearheaded by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, an advocacy group promoting better services for youth at risk to commit criminal behavior.

Connecticut is one of three states that have classified 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults. In doing so, these juveniles, if sentenced to incarceration, can be housed with adult prisoners, which can lead the juveniles to commit more crimes and crimes that escalate into violence.

Proponents of raising the age for adult status argued that in dealing with juvenile offenders it is important to focus on preventive measures, not punitive. CJJA Director Abby Anderson believes it is better to provide mental health services, education and residential facilities for juvenile offenders that would lead toward rehabilitation and productive lives. Also, the agency believes it is important to focus on offering such services to at-risk juveniles to prevent the crimes from occurring in the first place.

Anderson said the vast majority of crimes are low-level, and putting juvenile offenders in lock-up with adults does nothing to rehabilitate the teens. Today, society warrants the age change because teen issues need to be addressed not by punishment, but by measures that mental health providers and educators can provide.

Local resident Marion Moore Gilbert is the president of the Edward S. Moore Foundation, which her father, Edward S. Moore Jr., established in 1957. The Norwalk-based foundation is a strong supporter of CJJA's efforts in raising the age of adult status for juvenile offenders.

During the three-year campaign to raise the age, Gilbert and family members, including her husband and four children, who run the foundation, funded videos and a photographic exhibition to offer legislators and the public a visual representation of the juvenile offender population. In essence, through multimedia presentations, advocates for the age change put faces on the juvenile offenders and showed that these young people were members of families and needed help, not lock-up, to turn their lives around.

Gilbert noted that the photographic exhibit showed the two faces of each juvenile offender, side-by-side. One photo was the mug shot taken when the juvenile was arrested. The other was taken when the photographer spent some time with the juvenile and got to see and capture the individual in a more humane and personal light.

She said if people had only the mug shot to look at they would conclude that they would rather cross the street than encounter the individual.

Through the Edward S. Moore Foundation, the Gilberts support many organizations that focus on underserved youth, families and communities. Some of the Norwalk organizations that have received grants include the Family & Children's Agency, Inc., the Center for Youth Leadership at Brien McMahon High School, the George Washington Carver Foundation of Norwalk, Inc. and Family ReEntry.

The Gilberts turned their attention to the campaign to raise the age of juvenile offenders because they have been interested in prison reform and helping prisoners re-enter society for many years. They had supported programs in New York that offered skills training for prisoners to prepare them to re-enter society.

Gilbert, a former media specialist and librarian in the Darien public school system, said she gets great pleasure in giving foundation money to areas of need. But she and her family don't just write checks. They are hands-on. The Gilberts make sure they become familiar with the missions of the organizations and see for themselves how the organizations function.

"We spend time with the people, and that to me is the real joy. There are some amazing people out there," said Gilbert.

Gilbert and her family and their work with the Edward S. Moore Foundation exemplify our thoughts this time of year that there are truly angels among us who work diligently all year long making lives better for strangers in our midst.

Copyright 2007 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.