NEW CANAAN — Diane Sierpina sips coffee as she prepares to venture to New York City for an event at John Jay School of Criminal Justice.

A former journalist, the Stamford native knew she wanted to be a writer since she was in the third grade. Now, the 63-year-old is director of justice initiatives at the Tow Foundation, an organization created in 1988 that invests in medical research, higher education and cultural institutions.

Sierpina talked about her career and efforts to reform the juvenile criminal system.

Q: You were a journalist before working for the Tow Foundation. How was that?

A: I was a journalist since high school and I worked for the Stamford Advocate. I covered politics, government and human interest stories. When I started having a family, I became a freelance journalist for the New York Times covering Connecticut human interest stories. One of the stories was about an organization — Kids Care Club — based in New Canaan, founded by Debbie Spaide.

I wrote a story about it and she invited me to be a member of the advisory club. From my relationship there, I was asked if I was interested in working at the Tow Foundation. At the time, Emily Tow Jackson, the executive director, was working alone and was looking for staff, and in 1998 she hired me. It’s my 20th year at the foundation; it’s a momentous year for us.

Q: Was that a big change for you, coming to the foundation?

A: No, it was a smooth transition. I found that many of the skills I had as a journalist, like asking questions and synthesizing information into writing, really transitioned well in terms of interviewing our grantees, doing site visits, learning more about our programs and making recommendations on whether to support these groups or not.

Q: Was criminal justice your role from the beginning?

A: The foundation’s original and continuing interest is in breakthrough medical research that isn’t quite ready for government grants and funding. Another area is helping disadvantaged families.

We started funding direct services of programs who worked with poor families. One of the grants we started to fund was in Bridgeport that was working with young people under age 16 who were caught up in the justice system and were being put in juvenile prison. They were coming home now and they had struggles getting back into school and they need support.

Our board was really intrigued by that grant and kids involved in the justice system. In 1999, we studied the issue and took a year to learn about what was going on in Connecticut and researching the issue, and visiting juvenile prisons and programs working with kids who were coming home.

We talked to government people and the structure of the justice system. We found that Connecticut was one of three states in the country when you turned 16 years old, you were tried as an adult — these were policies that went back decades and there was no advocacy on changing those policies. There were three other organizations that came together with us to create the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance created in the fall of 2001 and that was the timing of the opening of the juvenile prison in Middletown.

Q: How did those

efforts go?

A: The Alliance took off, and we helped support strategic planning for funding the first staff there. One of the first things was force the state to come up with a juvenile justice plan and to raise the age from 16 to 18.

Connecticut started the new movement to raise the age to 18. There were about 11 states who were at 17. Connecticut got the ball rolling. After we did it successfully, we had data that showed that crime did not go up and that kids didn’t recidivate more. Other states started to follow suit; Connecticut people showed them how to do it. There are three or four states left who are at 17, but pretty soon you’ll find there are no states that are under 18. We as a foundation used our power of convening people and funding strategically the advocates and the legal service people, and were able to get government people to meet with us and help to make these reforms happen.

Q: You’ve been on this project for 20 years now?

A: Yes. We funded a national organization to research the Connecticut story. Connecticut is being really innovative now at treating those under 25 in the adult system. The trouble in the state now is the budget crisis; there have been cuts to grants of community providers. Gov. Malloy just announced that population in adult prison is the lowest it’s been in 25 years or so. We’re trying to get sentencing reform and bail reform so people get help for addiction instead of being incarcerated. We’re excited and nervous because Malloy isn’t running again and so we’re worried there might not be the same momentum.

Q: What is your role at the foundation?

A: There are two program directors — my colleague handles the performing arts and higher education and medical research projects. My title is director of justice initiatives, and the foundation has made a commitment of over $5 million a year around criminal justice investments in New York and Connecticut primarily.

About five years ago or so, we put more emphasis on criminal justice and general reform of the criminal system largely in Connecticut, but at the national level, too. My colleague, Eileen Wiseman, and I work together when there’s an overlap between higher education and criminal justice.

Q: How do you feel as a new board member of the Connecticut Council of Philanthropy?

A: We want to make sure other philanthropic communities in the state are aware and educated and informed about issues. I think they wanted someone like me because our foundation is system-reform oriented. We use our power as a philanthropy to convene people and draw attention to issues. I’m hoping as a member of the council that we offer programming and education so other philanthropists will invest in these issues with us and make our state better for all our citizens.

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