Citing a minefield of obstacles to closing the state’s controversial jail for juvenile offenders, the governor’s budget and policy director said Thursday that previously announced plans to close the Connecticut Juvenile Training School by July 2018 may have to be pushed back significantly.
He also raised the possibility that the training school, which is in Middletown, might be modified so it could continue serving the same population of juveniles – those convicted of crimes not serious enough to place them in the adult justice system.
“The decisions that will need to be made with respect to location and programming are all not going to be as easy as one might hope,” Benjamin Barnes, the secretary of policy and management, told the state panel that oversees juvenile justice Thursday. “The easy part about saying we’re going to close a program we don’t like is the easy part. The part about what the successors to that look like are a quite bit more complex.”
Barnes laid out four different options the administration considered as it attempted to form a plan to close the facility, which mental health experts and human rights advocates called a boondoggle after videos from inside the facility were released.
Each option faces significant hurdles, said Barnes.
The idea of having the Department of Children and Families take over one of the two facilities that the Judicial Branch uses to house youths while they await trial has been rejected.
“We use them. There’s a need for us to continue having two detention centers. It just doesn’t make sense,” Chief Court Administrator Judge Patrick L. Carroll Jr. said during an interview after Thursday’s meeting. The pretrial facilities are in Bridgeport and Hartford.
The administration is considering repurposing existing state properties, but Barnes warned that such a process could take years before a facility were move-in ready. That’s in part because the state would probably encounter significant pushback from any community chosen as a location, Barnes said.
“Any other building I mention is going to fill my email box,” he said after jokingly raising the option of turing the legislative office building into the next jail for young offenders. When the state proposed opening a locked facility in Bridgeport years ago, local opposition sank the plan.
Even if a location could be agreed upon, any significant renovations could take years to design and construct, he said.
Another option, is to keep CJTS open and refit the facility. The Department of Children and Families, shortly before the governor called for its closure, had an architect design a makeover of the facility to make it more therapeutic and less correctional.
“I would argue that the facility in Middletown, we have an existing juvenile facility there so there is the possibility that there could be something at that location that was not CJTS, that was different,” said Barnes. “Although that’s challenging because, if you are trying to close CJTS, there’s an implication that you are leaving, leaving the grounds. I am not going to rule anything out at this point.”
The final option would be to rely on private providers to run smaller, locked facilities for up to 10 youths each.
“There does not appear to be strong interest among private providers for operating the secure facilities,” said Barnes. “I am not saying that it will not happen, there will not be someone identified that has the physical plant and the organizational capacity to provide the secure confinement… I’d love to see five nonprofit providers come forward and respond to a [request for a proposal] to provide secure detention for 30 kids, and we’d pick the best ones… I don’t really think that’s an option for us now.”
In an opinion article published on The Mirror’s commentary website, CT Viewpoints, the leader of an organization that runs private residential facilities explained why his members aren’t interested in opening locked facilities.
“We think this is where the line should be drawn between which services are provided by state government and which are delivered by community-based treatment providers,” wrote Dan Rezende, the president of the Children’s League of Connecticut. “All locked facilities should be managed by state government with the goal of transitioning clients to community facilities as quickly as possible. All non-locked treatment should be managed by providers operating in a community setting.”
But William Carbone, the former executive director of the Judicial Branch division that oversaw community-based programs and services, urged the administration not to rule it out and to request proposals from providers.
“Residential programs tend to work better… If we did this, we would be following what the research shows works best,” he said. “They may be out there. It may be worth testing those waters. … You really do have a robust, private nonprofit network out there that is capable of giving the state what you want in terms of security and in terms of programming.”
As the Malloy administration contemplates which avenue to pursue, Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, the juvenile panel co-chair, said she was alarmed by the discussion about how long such a change could take.
“I am a little concerned because I know we talked about closing CJTS back in the fall, and I thought these discussions and these plans were being put into effect during that time. So now we are at another point, and it seems like we haven’t made as much progress as I thought we were doing,” said Walker. “It is well known that institutional living does not help with whatever issues they are having. … I think that we’ve been going down this road and we keep pushing the ball down the road. I would have hoped we had gotten a lot farther than where we seem to be right now.”
A plan outlining which approach the administration is proposing is expected in early July.