The Charger Blog

Tow Youth Justice Institute Leads Critical Discussion Among State Leaders and Youths

The University’s Tow Youth Justice Institute recently hosted a conference that brought together innovators and leaders in the field of youth justice from across Connecticut – as well as young people with lived experiences.

April 19, 2023

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

A crowd gathers to watch the conference.
The conference brought together innovators from across the state in the field of youth justice.

Jessica Morgan ’26 Ph.D., has always been interested in youth justice. As a doctoral research fellow with the University’s Tow Youth Justice Institute (TYJI), she’s had many hands-on opportunities to immerse herself in the field. Among those was the chance to attend the TYJI’s inaugural “Pathways to Success” conference.

A candidate in the University’s doctoral program in criminal justice, Morgan is also interested in exploring racial and ethnic disparities, transformative justice, and incarceration. Morgan, who often volunteered in her Massachusetts community while growing up, is eager to continue to make a difference professionally. She was excited to learn more about potential opportunities at the conference, and to learn more about youth justice in Connecticut, specifically. She says the conference was important for all constituents who were a part of the conversation, from young people to leaders in the field.

“This was an amazing opportunity,” she said. “Having the youths speak to a room full of people with power is so important. I always look to have the youth involved. This is the beginning, a steppingstone. It’s a great start.”

‘A one-size-fits-all approach does not work’

Held in Cromwell, Conn., the conference brought together “trailblazers and innovators” in youth justice – including educators, community program leaders, and, even, youths with lived experiences within the justice system. It fostered critical conversations about youth justice between stakeholders from across Connecticut.

Erika Nowakowski speaks as part of the conference.
Erika Nowakowski speaks as part of the conference.

Erika Nowakowski, MSW, associate director of the TYJI, says their goal was to “tackle the negative light” in which young people who have had contact with the justice system have been facing. Despite those negative perceptions, she says the data indicates that the arrest rate for youths for all crimes in Connecticut has decreased by 85 percent since 1991. Still, youths who have had contact with the justice system need support, and Nowakowski hopes the conference was an important way to help provide it.

"We wanted this conference to focus on the needs – specifically, the complex needs that our children and young individuals are experiencing,” she said. “Are those complex needs one factor that is bringing our children and young people into contact with the system? Our presenters discussed the innovative and accessible approaches to how they are addressing those needs. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work.”

‘Young people can lead us to what works best for them’

The event included speakers who shared information about the justice system, as well as panel discussions covering topics such as innovations in education, vocational opportunities, and reentry. The final panel discussion included several young people who shared their experiences, needs, and thoughts as they explained that they prefer to be referred to as “young people” rather than “juveniles.” They also discussed their involvement in youth-justice reform.

“I don’t care about being on the news or getting attention,” explained one of the panelists. “I care about helping other young people.”

In sharing their own experiences, the panelists discussed the structure and rules they’ve been told to follow. One panelist explained that he does his schoolwork at school because it’s enforced, whereas he knows he doesn’t have to at home because there is no enforcement. A young woman in attendance agreed to join the panel mid-session, and she shared her own concerns about the youth-justice system.

“As a new mother of a Black son, I don’t want to be part of a society that would lock up my son,” she said. “Morally, we cannot incarcerate children. It’s crazy how even kids can get arrested.”

Nowakowski says the opportunity to hear directly from the youths with lived experience was critical. The discussion focused on the importance of collaboration, resources, and of hearing directly from those who have been impacted and/or marginalized by the justice system.

“I am in a lot of spaces where policies are being made and there is a lot of talk about needing to hear from those with firsthand experience,” said Nowakowski. “When we do invite young people to the table and ask them to put themselves out there, we need to be prepared to do the same. It is vital, and way past it’s time. We can no longer make changes without sharing the space and, at times, moving out of the way so our young people can lead us to what works best for them.”

Three panel members sitting at a table.
Several young people shared their own experiences as part of a panel discussion.
‘Knowledge comes from people with lived experience’

The conference was also an important learning opportunity for students who hope to make a meaningful impact in the field. For Nicole Kessler ’23 M.A., a candidate in the University’s graduate program in community psychology, it was a great way to learn more about the possible careers in which she can make a difference.

“This was so amazing,” she said. “As a graduate student, I found that the positions represented are exactly the types of jobs I’m looking for. The TYJI does a great job of getting us connected.”

“It means a lot for me to be here, especially because of the opportunities to interact with people in the field including the youths impacted by the justice system,” added Sydney de Lannoy, a graduate student in social work at UConn who also attended the conference. “It’s good for students who want to go into this field. It’s an opportunity that not everyone has.”

The conference was also an important opportunity for educators and researchers. Danielle Cooper, Ph.D., CPP, an associate professor of criminal justice and director of research for the TYJI, conducts research in the areas of youth justice and delinquency prevention. She was grateful that she and her students could be a part of it.

“I hope my students continue to see the importance of lifelong learning,” she said. “Knowledge comes from people with lived experience – such as those we heard from at this conference.”