The Office of the Child Advocate’s report on the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) reveals conditions requiring decisive action to keep youth safe.

It is encouraging that the Department of Children and Families (DCF) recently released its own report on CJTS acknowledging problems with the facility. DCF’s consultant, Dr. Robert Kinscherff of the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, made recommendations similar to the child advocate’s. DCF agreed to implement many of them.

Again, this is encouraging. Because the child advocate’s report documented poor monitoring of suicidal youth and an inadequate clinical response to self harm, it is critical that protocols surrounding these especially vulnerable children be improved immediately.

Both reports leave me convinced that many of the youth at CJTS simply do not belong there. Most girls and boys at the facility have at least one diagnosed mental illness and enter with a history of trauma. If CJTS were a model facility, it would not be the right place for them. There is no evidence that trauma can be addressed in a prison-like setting.

Retraumatizing experiences, such as restraints and seclusion, should be limited, preferably eliminated. The child advocate reported that most restraints – which can include a physical take-down by multiple staff – took place on second shift, when no mental health clinician was available.

DCF is taking a positive step by adjusting schedules to provide more clinical coverage. In a truly therapeutic facility, however, there would have already been a clinician on site when kids are out of school and most likely to have incidents.

Instead, behavior linked to mental health issues is treated as disciplinary. There were 47 arrests last year at CJTS, which housed 240 youth. This is not a slam against DCF or training school staff. A juvenile prison can no more be a therapeutic environment than a rocket can be fuel-efficient.

The child advocate praises the “Missouri model,” small, therapeutic facilities that are dramatically lowering the rate at which young people re-offend. Elsewhere in the country, programs of community-based wraparound services show great promise.

In April, the Pew Charitable Trust issued a report praising these initiatives, which produce lower rates of reoffending than juvenile incarceration. That was followed up by a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation making a strong case that juvenile prisons are incubators for abuse.

The state does not measure recidivism for young people coming out of CJTS. So it is impossible to say whether the $750-a-day cost per youth yields any return to taxpayers in safer communities. National research suggests not.

When the fence went up in Middletown around this new training school, large, high-security facilities were already falling out of favor. Nevertheless, Gov. John Rowland’s administration proceeded with the $57 million no-bid project.  This facility was not constructed with regard for the best interests of the taxpayers who funded it or the young people who would be locked up there.

Along with immediate efforts to improve CJTS, we should be working to get kids out of there. The girl’s unit, Pueblo, has a consistently low census. At times a single girl has been held in the facility, which costs in excess of $2 million annually to operate. The child advocate voiced concerns about suicide prevention there and facility issues such as mold. There is room at the more therapeutic Journey House. We could close Pueblo tomorrow.

Most boys are at CJTS for non-violent offenses and could be safely held accountable without being locked up. Furthermore, DCF’s own consultant warned of the inadvisability of mixing low- and high-risk youth. Without recidivism data, it is impossible to document the effect of this.

Finally, and most urgently, when a young person’s behavior is the consequence of mental health issues rather than a calculated decision to break the law, incarceration is the wrong response. Many of the boys and girls at CJTS fall under that category. Often multiple systems have failed to serve them for years before they end up in the juvenile justice system. That is on us, not the kids.

We must stop punishing them for our failure.

Robert Francis is co-chair of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance and executive director of the Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership.

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