It is hard to imagine an issue to campaign on worse than the imprisonment of children.
While Gov. Ned Lamont and his political opponents are trying to outflank each other on the issue of youth justice, our children are getting caught in the middle. We cannot go back in time and allow a factory of failure such as the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) to come back into existence.
The Connecticut Justice Alliance (CTJA) stands firmly against reopening the CJTS, something the governor has toyed with and others have used as sensational, political red meat for personal gain. Our organization’s mission is to end the criminalization of youth. Reopening a shuttered youth prison to lock up children goes against everything CTJA has fought for and the state of Connecticut has done to shift towards a youth legal system that offers effective solutions for youth who commit crimes.
Instead of debating which building our children should be incarcerated in, our policymakers and politicians should be focused on addressing the root causes of crime. Young people deserve care that is close to home, rehabilitative, individualized, all-encompassing and is accessible 24/7.
We recognize and have heard in CTJA Vision Sessions, there are instances when young people have to be removed from their community for a period of time. For the 15-year-old who commits an egregious offense, we contend smaller rehabilitative facilities closer to home be used, not prisons with restraint jackets.
At the end of 2021, the Judicial Branch submitted an Implementation Plan, to the Connecticut legislature, following Public Act 21-174 that required them to “develop an implementation plan to securely house in the custody of the Judicial Branch any person under 18 who is arrested and detained prior to sentencing or disposition on or after Jan. 1, 2023. The plan shall include cost estimates and recommendations for legislation as may be necessary or appropriate for implementation of such plan.”
In the proposed Implementation Plan, Connecticut would have to spend $22 million upfront to restructure CJTS and approximately $18 million a year to operate it. This is a large amount of funding to bolster a system that imprisons youth and rips families apart. Instead, this funding should be directed to small, rehabilitative, therapeutic spaces focusing on education, behavioral health, and support services that youth and families have asked for and benefit from and have asked for. This was supposed to happen when CJTS was closed in 2018 and did not. Connecticut still has not invested in an appropriate continuum of care for young people.
If CJTS were reopened as a place to incarcerate young people, most of the youth there would be moving further away from their homes, families, and community, further ostracizing them from the types of role models and resources they would need to make a change in their life. All of the youth would be entering yet another punitive environment that is not conducive to healing.
By reopening CJTS, Connecticut will once again be investing only in incarcerating youth and doing nothing to address the root of what brought these young people into the legal system. We must concentrate dollars on prevention and front-end diversion. For the past few legislative sessions, there has been proposal after proposal to fund community-based diversion system plans, but none of these have been passed or fully funded.
If we want a model for how incarcerating youth plays out, despite the word ‘school’ or ‘therapeutic’ used to describe the facility, you need to look no further than the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire.
Current conditions inside MYI are deplorable. So much so, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice declared it a violation of the civil rights of the youth incarcerated there.
For youth, the legal system is even more racially unjust than for adults. At Manson, more than 80-percent of youth incarcerated are either Black or brown. This follows the trend we have seen in the past when young people are incarcerated or detained in Connecticut.
To meaningfully improve public safety we must strategically address the root causes of crime, including poverty, structural racism, and children’s unmet needs. Until we as a community reimagine what true safety, justice, and rehabilitation look like, we’re left with a punitive system that does more harm than good.
Nationally, alternative options have proven successful, but Connecticut has been reluctant to invest in them. In a time when Connecticut has access to over $1 billion in federal aid to address violence and increase community resources, reopening CJTS is immoral and a waste of money. There are at least 27 states that do not house youth in adult prison, who are charged as adults. Some of these include New York, Vermont, Washington DC, and Maine. Connecticut must take a look at these states to see how they have managed to do this.
Connecticut must use this opportunity to plan what is best for the long-term success of youth in this state. Retrofitting a shuttered prison is sending the wrong message to Connecticut’s youth and the communities they come from.
By reopening CJTS, Connecticut has decided the life of a child can be tossed aside, and that the money wasted in a prison is far better than investing in Black and brown communities.
We call on Connecticut’s decision-makers to do the right thing and get our children the help they need, not play politics with their futures by reinvesting in policy that has already been proven to fail.
We must do all we can as a state to end the criminalization of youth. Incarceration doesn’t work. Investing funds into a closed youth prison to make it a better-looking building with a new name won’t change that it is a prison. Connecticut’s youth deserve better.
To learn more about how Connecticut could invest in these solutions, visit ctja.org.
Christina Quaranta is the Executive Director of the CT Justice Alliance (CTJA), a youth-adult partnership public policy and advocacy organization located in Bridgeport.