Maximum security is no place for traumatized girls

Across the country, states are closing or downsizing juvenile justice facilities. This has been happening during an unprecedented reduction in youth crime. Juvenile courts and state juvenile justice agencies are finding that they can protect the public and improve the lives of youth by using community resources more and relying less on institutions.

Inexplicably, Connecticut is about to become a national outlier. The state is planning to open a second maximum security facility for girls in its juvenile justice system. It is important that Connecticut residents understand exactly who will be incarcerated there and why that incarceration will be harmful and unnecessary.

Girls’ offenses are nearly always non-violent. Their life stories are invariably heartbreaking. More than 70 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have suffered from physical or sexual trauma.  Their rates of physical and mental illness are higher than their male counterparts.  Family dysfunction is commonplace. According to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, many of the girls who will be confined in the new facility are victims of sex trafficking.

The juvenile justice system retraumatizes girls. The practices of a maximum security facility -– locked rooms and searches, for example — are especially likely to do this.

Sometimes public safety concerns dictate a secure placement, but that is not the case here. One Department of Children and Families official told The Mirror that neighbors should not object to the new facility because  “these gals are not dangerous. These are kids.”

To its credit, Connecticut state law requires the juvenile justice system to provide gender-specific programming. In the case of girls, that should include programming that is responsive to their trauma histories. One of the rationales for the new facility is that some girls run away from less secure placements.

We have worked in the juvenile justice system for decades. We know that this rationale is more about system failure than about helping girls or improving public safety. Connecticut’s response to this problem should be a hard look at the existing programs that have failed to engage girls.

Placing young people in the safest, least restrictive environment possible increases their success and decreases recidivism. It is more cost-effective than locking them away in maximum security institutions. Research shows that even for youth who can benefit from a secure placement, stays should be short. Three to six months is optimal -– but only for youth who are a risk to others or themselves. One study found that stays of more than nine months increased recidivism, thereby reducing public safety. In the state’s existing secure facility for girls, Journey House, stays are longer than any expert in the field would recommend. Moving girls out of Journey House more quickly would serve them better and free up space -– eliminating the need for this expensive, duplicate facility—for the few girls who must be separated from their communities

Overly long stays in a secure facility are often a sign that there are inadequate re-entry  programs to support a child’s return to the community. The state should look at its continuum of care. Investing in less restrictive options would better serve girls -– not to mention taxpayers, who would be spared the cost of renovating and staffing an unnecessary facility.

DCF Commissioner Joette Katz has described the new facility to The Mirror in idyllic terms. It “has a nice view. It’s going to be a great place for them to do music and for dance and art therapy,” she said. Unfortunately, girls will be looking at that view through unbreakable glass and a fence. This is a maximum security facility that will disrupt girls’ normal development without commensurate public benefit.

We would be challenged to find other states that are opening new secure facilities for girls. Available research suggests that easily accessible, program-rich, community-based settings are far more beneficial for individual and community outcomes. Gender responsiveness requires attention to the needs of girls so that programs and policies can address girls’ development and help them to establish and sustain consistent, supportive relationships. This new facility will not accomplish these important goals. It is disheartening to see Connecticut, a state often seen as a leader in juvenile justice policy, taking such a step backward.

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