Changes in sentencing policies for young offenders mean fewer inmates than ever are living at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, though several youths on any given day remain locked up because there is nowhere else for them to go.
“They need to have a placement to leave and that takes longer, so that’s been a little bit of a challenge,” William Rosenbeck, the superintendent of the state-run facility, told the CJTS Advisory Board last month.
And while the stay for the dozens of black males that end up at the state-run jail is still typically much longer than for their white and Hispanic peers, the disparity is narrowing.
This shift is the result of a new policy implemented last fall that shortens the stay of boys convicted of crimes not serious enough to land them in the adult justice system. Fewer youth are also being referred to CJTS now by judges, parole officers and group home operators.
All these changes mean the number of those at the state’s only jail for boys convicted as juveniles has declined from 147 on a typical day during the spring of 2014 to 62 in October.
With this push to release children as quickly as possible without jeopardizing public safety, state officials say engaging their families is more important than ever, since the overwhelming majority of youths will return home after leaving.
“We encourage family involvement from the moment they get admitted to CJTS,” said Debra Bond, the clinical director of the facility. “I think the best practice is engagement so you can transition them back into the community.”
But some of the lawyers who represent those in the juvenile justice system say the state is still falling short on that front.
“We pay lip service to saying we want parent engagement. The state does very little to both ask them what they want and what would help them,” Martha Stone, the executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, recently told the legislative panel that oversees juvenile justice in Connecticut.
Every youth admitted to CJTS is now given either a six- or 12-month sentence on the day they arrive, though they can be released earlier or later depending on behavior. Previously, it would take months before a discharge date was determined, a process that many felt was too subjective.
The Department of Children and Families made the changes in length-of-stay protocols after the number of children incarcerated at CJTS reached a 10-year high, a new jail to house girls was opened, and the living conditions of an incarcerated transgender teen drew criticism from child advocates.
It also came after researchers at Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform reported that children were locked up at CJTS too frequently and for too long.
National research shows that how long children are confined matters.
“Longer stays in juvenile institutions do not reduce recidivism, and some youth who had the lowest offending levels reported committing more crimes after being incarcerated,” Edward Mulvey, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, found in a study of delinquent youths. “Youth who stayed in institutions longer showed little or no decrease in their rates of re-arrest compared with those with shorter stays.”
In Connecticut, two-thirds of those released from CJTS will be incarcerated at a prison for adults in Connecticut within three years, according to preliminary data from the governor’s policy office.
Minorities locked up longer
The racial makeup of teenagers incarcerated at CJTS does not reflect the state’s population. And the minority youths sent there typically serve months longer than whites.
Black and Hispanic youths who were released from CJTS during the first nine months of 2014 were incarcerated an average of three months longer than their white peers.
That disparity shrank after the new protocols took effect Oct. 1.
The average stay of black youths, who make up half of those incarcerated at CJTS, is now five weeks longer than that of white youths.
The gap was eliminated for Hispanic youth. The average stay of both Hispanics and whites since the policy change is 20 weeks.
But officials acknowledge some youths could still be released earlier.
Agency officials report they regularly have to override a discharge date and extend the stay of boys at CJTS.
“A few were to complete the school semester, others were for behavior, but many others were due to delays in placement,” DCF officials reported to the advisory board at its last meeting.
During the first nine months of this year, 25 youths remained incarcerated at CJTS after they were cleared to leave because the department had nowhere to release them. That’s one out of every five youths at CJTS.
“In some cases, youths’ stays were extended between four and six months for placement difficulties,” the report states.
These obstacles have been a problem for some time.
“What we are finding with [the] African American population is it is more difficult to find placements. For the kids that do go home, there is no delay,” the minutes from the advisory board’s June meeting read.
The researchers at Georgetown also pointed out this problem more than two years ago after visiting the facility.
“On occasion, youth had remained beyond the term of the commitment order because of a lack of an appropriate and viable community-based or home placement,” they wrote in June 2013.
Numerous Connecticut residential treatment facilities for teenagers have either closed or stopped taking those involved in the criminal justice system over the last several years. Also, the state has largely stopped sending adolescents to out-of-state facilities.
In turn, this has put more pressure on the department to help families prepare for the return of their children.
Three hours: that’s how long a mother or father from Bridgeport would spend on a train or bus getting to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown to visit a child.
“Each person works individually to find the best way to get here,” said Bond during an interview. “I think the families are resourceful.”
But many don’t make it.
In the last fiscal year, one-third of the boys at the juvenile jail had no therapy session with their family. For families that do make it, the frequency ranges from twice a month to every other month.
Participation rates in therapy sessions dropped around the same time the state stopped paying for cabs and bus tickets so families could get to the facility.
In 2013, the state paid for 682 trips to and from CJTS for family members. Midway through 2014, that funding was eliminated after state officials at the Department of Social Services determined the transportation was not medically necessary and therefore the state was not eligible to be reimbursed for the costs by the federal government.
“Unfortunately, we are therefore not in a position to be able to provide the transportation services that are so often sought,” Donna Balaski with DSS wrote officials at the juvenile jail in August 2014.
Bond, the clinical director of CJTS, said her staff works hard to keep or build the connection between the youths and their families.
Bond points to times social workers have driven families to the facility and the 256 times last year youth were granted passes to leave the facility for the day or overnight to help with their transition back home.
Clinicians also try to keep children’s families up to date on how they are doing. Each month, clinicians document making more than 200 phone calls to families.
“We are constantly talking to the families,” said Bond.
And youths are encouraged to keep in touch, too.
Families are able to visit every day except Monday and Friday, and youths are not charged for phone calls. The visitation area has a “Baby Elmo” room with toys for young fathers to use in playing with their children.
Bond said there may be several reasons why families do not participate in their child’s recovery and reentry to the community.
“A lot of kids when they get here, you know, there is a little bit of a cooling off period between them and their family. Maybe they just sort of overwhelmed everybody; maybe they burnt bridges, and there’s a little bit of tough love going on,” she said. “I don’t think there are any barriers based on our location…I think families are coping with a lot of needs and other kids besides the kids they have here. So they are juggling their lives, their own mental health issues and issues with their other kids.”
And sometimes the youths don’t want their parents involved.
“Some of the kids feel like, ‘I am 18 years old now; I don’t want anyone telling me what to do,'” Bond said. “Ultimately, they know they have to rely on their families.”
The department does not formally survey parents to see where it can improve. The Judicial Branch, which is responsible for pre-trial detention of youth, conducts surveys twice a year to determine how often families visit or call and how welcomed they feel by staff. (See those results here.)
Unhappy with the conditions at CJTS, several human rights advocates and mental health experts in recent months have called for closing the jail and opening smaller facilities throughout the state, closer to where youths are from and their families live.
Rekindling or fostering a connection between the young offender and family can prove challenging, said Julian Ford, a psychiatry professor at the UConn Health Center and director of The Child Trauma Clinic, which supports those in the state’s juvenile justice system.
Often, the parent needs help first to overcome the stress, anger, and anxiety they are feeling about their child’s incarceration.
“It’s extremely stressful for the family. The most important thing is to explain those feelings are not a deficiency. It’s an absolutely natural reaction,” said Ford. “We want to inform the family so they feel less stigma and can work to heal their son, and when that can happen, it can make a big difference… In some cases the youth have been separated from their families for so long that it’s really hard to restart that connection in a prison-like setting. It’s clear it’s a youth prison. That can be intimidating, sad and emotionally difficult for them.”