With Connecticut’s controversial jail for young offenders slated to close within two-and-a-half years, state leaders have begun to contemplate what an alternative juvenile justice system should encompass.
“If not CJTS: then what?” asked Commissioner Joette Katz, head of the Department of Children and Families, the agency that operates the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. It is the state’s only secure facility for boys convicted of offenses not serious enough to merit confinement in the adult system.
While answers to the commissioner’s question are not expected to be shaped into a formal plan until September, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Katz and a state panel of stakeholders have said they prefer smaller, less restrictive facilities.
“The tension is obviously about brick and mortar. This is not about the staff,” Katz said during an advisory board meeting Tuesday at the facility in Middletown.
The training school is surrounded by a fence and security cameras. Entering requires passing through a series of locked doors. It recently became a source of controversy when an investigation by the state’s Child Advocate concluded that children housed at CJTS and the neighboring facility for girls, Pueblo, have at times been unlawfully restrained and put into seclusion for extended periods of time.
Of the 3,000 children each year that enter Connecticut’s juvenile justice system after being convicted of breaking the law, about 200 are sent to CJTS.
Malloy faces a long list of obstacles to overcome if the facility is to close, barriers that the previous administration was unable to get past.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s 2005 plan to close CJTS failed for several reasons, including cost projections — $23.2 million to build smaller facilities and $29.2 million to operate them. Additionally, leaders from the communities where new facilities were proposed to be located, along with unionized employees who work at the Middletown facility, were opposed to the plan.
“A lot of these communities where we were proposing putting them had a lot of push back. More often than not we were told ‘No, that’s not happening in my back yard,’” said Bridgeport’s James Amman, Speaker of the House at the time. “What do we do with those jobs? It’s not going to be a cost savings because you can’t just cut those jobs. It just didn’t make fiscal sense at that time. The price tag was just so ridiculous. Questions were raised,’Why are we doing this?’”
Year later, these issues will still need to be resolved.
“Its going to take a lot of money and its going to take will. And then we would have to go to the community and zoning to get approval,” said Katz, who remembers the last undertaking. “Well, here’s the reality: remember what happened in Bridgeport 10 years ago? It was like a scene in Frankenstein, everyone and their mother came out to kill the monster.”
But the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee — a state panel of experts in juvenile justice, advocates and state leaders — say too much is at stake not to shake up the state’s juvenile justice system.
“There is an emerging consensus that the juvenile justice system should not remain the default behavioral health service system,” says a preliminary report the oversight committee is expected to discuss this afternoon at the state Capitol complex. “Detaining youth for behaviors resulting from unmet needs is not only unjust, but also exacerbates existing conditions by putting youth at greater risk of self-harm, mixing youth with negative peers, and disconnecting students from school, family and the community.”
Youngsters are currently being incarcerated in Connecticut not because they pose a risk to the public, but because there is nowhere else to house them or because the health services they require are not always available in the community, the report says.
To reverse this reality, the panel is expected to vote Jan. 28 to recommend that the state overhaul its juvenile justice system, beginning with closing the controversial state-run jail for youth and funneling millions more into community-based programs and smaller secure- and non-secure therapeutic centers.
“Increasing the network and availability of community-based alternatives emerged as the primary system change strategy,” says the report. “The juvenile justice system will continue to be the default for the behavorial health needs of challenging youth if the needed community based resources are not readily available.”
Katz is supportive, with the caveat that the state continue to be in charge of operating a secure facility for juvenile offenders, and not rely entirely on private providers.
“I think the state has to be responsible for its children,” she said, pointing to a examples where private providers have called her to pick up a child they couldn’t handle. “I am very clear and adamant about there has to be somewhere, otherwise you are putting way too much weight on the rest of the system.”
If no state-run facility exists and there is no private provider willing to take in a youth with significant issues, the alternative is a hospital emergency room or adult prison, she worries.
When Republican legislators proposed closing the facility last year, they found half of the 221 youth that were sent to live at CJTS last fiscal year were there for the “least severe” offenses, such as violation of probation and drug possession.
Malloy, a Democrat who has said he plans to make juvenile justice reform one of his top priorities in the legislative session that begins next month, visited one of those community-based facilities to see for himself.
Raymond Fletcher is one of the young people he met at My People Clinical Services, a group home in Hartford for youth transitioning back into the community from jail.
Fletcher considers himself lucky. Boys sometimes have to wait to leave jail until they have somewhere to go, and Fletcher managed to land a bed in the Hartford facility.
“It was pretty hard getting into it, but I got in. And once I got into it, you know, it was pretty hard at first adjusting but the staff and the program really pushed and helped and encouraged me,” Fletcher said. He now goes to college and has a part-time job.
But the program has a wait list — a problem Malloy said he aims to fix.
“The problem with government, right, is that we are more likely to recreate our mistakes than we are to recreate our successes. So this model has been around for a while. We haven’t previously invested in it to the same extent that we could have based on a better track record. So I am interested in this,” he said.
Malloy is confident closing CJTS will save money. The facility that is budgeted to cost $53.5 million to operate this year employs more than 300 people.
“It is staffed to a point to be prepared to accept a much larger audience of people than it is currently serving. So the answer is, yeah, I think there will be dollars that will either be saved or can be spent in other ways,” he said.
After meeting with the governor late-December, union leaders warned of the dangers of closing the facility without an adequate plan in place.
“Any plan by the state must prevent our students from being sent to Connecticut’s prison for juvenile offenders, placed into private sector programs which are not prepared for these students, or returned without support to an unchanged situation where they originally got into trouble. We care about our students and we need to ensure that their needs are being met throughout this process,” a joint statement from union leaders of CSEA SEIU Local 2001, AFSCME Council 4, CEUI and SEIU 1199NE.
Malloy has also proposed raising the maximum age for placement in the juvenile justice system, so youth up to age 20 who commit less serious offenses will not be burdened with a criminal record.
When Rell proposed closing CJTS back in 2005, the legislature also was moving to raise the juvenile justice maximum age from age 15 to 17.
Chris Rapillo, the director of delinquency defense for the public defender’s office, said the governor’s proposal to push back the age even further and divert more people into the juvenile system may end up competing with his call to close CJTS by July 2018.
“If raise the age happens, that’s a game changer,” Rapillo said during Tuesday’s meeting.
The state panel that meets today also plans to consider recommending several other changes including;
- No longer allowing youth to be incarcerated in pre-trial detention facilities for violating probation, unless the violation is for a new criminal offense.
- Narrowing the time when juvenile pre-trial detainees come before a judge from every 15 days to 7. Also, allowing the deputy director of the detention facility to release youth under certain circumstances.
- No longer allowing children to be referred to court for truancy or defiance of school rules once it is determined that the appropriate level of interventions for these youths are accessible. The intent is to shift the responsibility for addressing behavioral needs away from the court system and to the community.
- Expanding Juvenile Review Boards to every community. These boards serve as a diversion from the courts to provide youth with access to services they require.
- Expanding in-home therapy programs and use of Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Services, a crisis intervention service that is an alternative to calling the police.
- Begin tracking outcomes so that the state can direct funding to programs with positive results.