University News

University’s Tow Youth Justice Institute Earns $1 Million Federal Grant to Support Restorative Justice

The Tow Youth Justice Institute’s grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention will enable them to connect youths and important services with the goal of building relationships and offering alternatives to help divert juveniles out of the justice system.

January 23, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Members of the University’s Tow Youth Justice Institute at a leadership ceremony prior to the pandemic.

Donna Pfrommer and her colleagues at the University’s Tow Youth Justice Institute (TYJI) are passionate about ensuring the behavioral health challenges and service needs of minors are met with compassionate care – not merely escalated into the juvenile justice system.

The TYJI recently received more than $1 million in funding from the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to help advance these efforts – and their impact. The award will be allocated over three years to support the creation of the Restoring Connecticut Project to increase support for juveniles in and out of the juvenile justice system throughout Connecticut.

Restorative practices, gaining traction across the country as a best practice in addressing problematic youth behavior, are used as a diversionary tactic to help youths avoid future conflict. Considered a more therapeutic response that could help address the root causes of problematic behavior, Pfrommer says, restorative practices, research shows, divert youth from the justice system and reduce recidivism in juvenile offenders.

“We are very excited about the award, as we worked diligently to position our Institute and the University as the recipient of these funds,” said Pfrommer, director of development and communications for the TYJI. “This is the third time we have received OJJDP funds for various projects and initiatives. As we work closely at the state level on juvenile justice reform work, the OJJDP has recognized us as being an effective instrument in ensuring our system is following best practices and utilizing the most innovative approaches.”

‘An alternative pathway to resolving their conflicts’

Hoping to strengthen the state’s network of restorative practices, the TYJI endeavors to make support more easily accessible to youth and families by creating a collaborative network of restorative justice practice providers. By developing an interactive online database, they hope to make resources available to every community, school, and home to offer alternative responses to addressing challenging youth behavior.

“We envision The Restoring Connecticut Project becoming a model in the nation for connecting, in a variety of ways, youth and their families with restorative practices to address unmet needs that make them vulnerable to entering the juvenile justice system,” said Devon McCormick, restorative justices practices project manager for the TYJI.

The Center for Children’s Advocacy (CCA) and the Connecticut Youth Services Association, the grant sub-awardees, will support this mission. The CCA will train staff in facilities such as therapeutic residential programs and pretrial detention programs on topics including incorporating restorative justice principles into responding to juveniles’ behavior. The Connecticut Youth Services Association will conduct a thorough landscape analysis for both the Youth Service Bureaus and Juvenile Review Boards to get an accurate picture of their effectiveness, the strengths and capacities to be leveraged, needed areas of improvement and resources required to achieve Connecticut's juvenile diversion goals. Without a comprehensive understanding of where the system is, experts say, it is difficult to fill the gaps.

"Restorative justice practices have been found to reduce acting out behavior and major incidents and arrests, and improve problem-solving and communication."Donna Pfrommer, Director of Development & Communications of TYJI

The TYJI says that while there is increased interest in restorative justice practices training, there is also some confusion, and they hope to mitigate that by streamlining outcomes and increasing access to and knowledge of alternative pathways. In particular, they hope to give special concern to families with service needs as well as youth and families of color.

“By identifying and communicating restorative services available in the community, we can provide our families who have service needs and are dealing with challenging behaviors an alternative pathway to resolving their conflicts,” said Erika Nowakowski, director of youth justice initiatives for the TYJI.

‘Increases youths’ abilities to avoid future conflict’

The grant offers a variety of opportunities for the TYJI to collaborate with other organizations and agencies – including departments at the University, such as the electrical & computer engineering and computer science departments. They will be developing the user-centered online platform so that residents can access information on restorative programming and local practitioners.

“Coming from a family of scientists, I found that science and technology sometimes seem inadequate to fulfill my desire to work with people,” said Amir Esmailpour, Ph.D., an associate professor of cybersecurity who will lead the design and creation of the database. “It is fascinating for me to work on projects that involve sociological issues.”

The TYJI will also collaborate with the University on a certification process of restorative justice partners by reviewing best practices and developing a list of values and practices that align with them. They will then create an application for restorative justice partners to qualify for certification and placement in the online interface.

Pfrommer, the TYJI’s director of development and communications, says the Institute is uniquely positioned to bring together individual trainers and organizations. She says there are few organizations across the country working to identify restorative justice opportunities and connect those in need of services with providers, and she hopes they can make a meaningful and lasting impact on youths across Connecticut.

“Whether inside or outside of the juvenile justice system, responding to youths’ misbehavior with restorative justice practices increases youths’ abilities to avoid future conflict and continued involvement with the justice system,” she said. “Restorative justice practices have been found to reduce acting out behavior and major incidents and arrests, and improve problem-solving and communication.”