Hopes for a new state agency to house and treat children who run afoul of the law were significantly dimmed after a key lawmaker came out against the plan Friday.
“I’m just not in support of creating a new agency or a new branch or a new division or anything,” said Rep. Toni Walker, a New Haven Democrat who is also the co-chair of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee. “I think we need to work on what we’ve got, and make it better.”
Hired to review other states’ policies and suggest how Connecticut could improve its treatment of minors in the adult justice system, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy recommended officials create a new Executive Branch entity. That agency would be responsible for children in both the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. It would be accountable for juveniles currently housed at Manson Youth Institution, a prison run by the Department of Correction that is under federal investigation, and minors who are currently held in juvenile detention centers managed by the Judicial Branch.
Walker said her opinion is not one she has heard from every one of her legislative colleagues, “but many of them have expressed that to me, and I hear them loud and clear.”
Walker’s opposition is notable, given her position on the juvenile justice committee and her leadership role as co-chair of the legislature’s powerful Appropriations Committee. She made her comments during a meeting of the Incarceration Work Group, which opted Friday not to recommend the plan to the full JJPOC board.
The full committee will weigh in on the proposal in the coming weeks.
Regardless of whether a new department is created, agreement on the need for reform is unanimous.
“I think the status quo is not sustainable,” said state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan. “So, I don’t really know where that leaves us.”
It was Eagan’s January 2019 report that sparked the Department of Justice investigation into conditions of confinement of children incarcerated at Manson. Acknowledging the Department of Correction is working to improve conditions for minors held in the prison, Eagan said to assuage all her concerns about the penitentiary would be a “Herculean, if not an outright impossible task.”
“I know there’s always this tension between advocacy and pragmatism, but we do have to deal with where we are here,” Eagan added.
Walker agreed that reform is needed, but said where the children are held is less important than the underlying issues.
“Jumping around from building to building, to me, diverts our attention from what we really should be focusing on: how we provide the services both while they’re under the custody of the state or when they get back to their homes,” Walker said.
Officials are tasked with creating a system impactful enough to address issues related to trauma, employment, education and housing, Walker said.
“That cannot be housed into one agency. It has got to be a whole spectrum of agencies,” she said. “I think we need to stop looking at the names of the agencies and start looking at the things that we need to have for the kids.”