Although U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy is hoping to make federal policy out of Connecticut’s successes in juvenile justice, he and several child welfare advocates are hoping the state scraps its plan to establish a new locked facility for girls.
Murphy calls Connecticut a “model for success” when it comes to keeping juvenile offenders out of the state prison systems. From 2001 to 2010, the state has reduced its population of incarcerated minors by 50 percent. It was the largest such decline measured in a 2013 study from the National Juvenile Justice Network.
Hoping to build upon that success, Murphy plans to introduce legislation this month to offer incentives to encourage other states to enact similar juvenile justice reforms. The policies are aimed at preventing minors who commit low-level offenses from going to jail in the first place and reducing the number of school-based arrests.
“What we know is when you put kids in jail it doesn’t help them and it doesn’t help the taxpayers,” he said.
Murphy and juvenile justice advocates participated in a roundtable discussion Thursday at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. The state-run Middletown facility is a locked facility for boys. Its campus is surrounded by a tall fence that bends inward at the top to prevent climbing and its doors lock loudly behind visitors as the enter or exit its buildings.
“There are 130 kids who spent their holidays here at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, locked up,” Murphy told reporters after the meeting.
During that meeting some advocates expressed concerns about a plan by the state Department of Children and Families to establish more secure beds for juvenile offenders. The department is in the process of converting part of a state-run children’s psychiatric facility next to CJTS into a locked facility for girls.
By the end of February, the department will have the capacity to house up to 12 girls in a secure or locked setting. Fewer girls than boys are committed as delinquents to DCF. In December, the department had about 60 girls and 280 boys.
Although the state is finishing up renovations to the facility and is in the process of hiring staff to support it, Murphy said he hopes the department “thinks twice before moving ahead” with its plans.
“My worry always is that when you build a secure facility, you will fill it. That’s what happened here,” Murphy said, referring to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. “We didn’t need all these beds at the CJTS but we built a juvenile prison and we filled the beds.”
Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for DCF, said the beds will help the state provide short-term housing for girls who run away from the department’s other facilities. Runaways are at risk of being victimized, particularly through sex trafficking, Kleeblatt said. He did not believe the new beds would result in more girls being committed to the department.
“I want to stress [that this is for] a small number of girls for a limited period of time,” he said.
William Rosenbeck, superintendent of CJTS and the manager of the new project, said the facility is expected to have two “emergency beds” designed to house girls for short periods like overnight stays, as well as 10 other beds set aside for longer stays. Ideally, that means about a month but some cases will be more complex and will require more time in the locked facility, Rosenbeck said. The goal is to provide treatment and then get the girls back into the community.
Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy at the University of Connecticut School of Law, was one of the advocates with concerns about the new facility at Thursday’s meeting. She said the center has taken a firm position against it.
Stone said the new beds would not be required if the state would address “gridlock” at private facilities housing girls in the state, where girls are often kept for months.
“The reason it is needed is they have a gridlock at the facility they do have,” she said. “. . . If you really want to do something about treating girls in Connecticut, the first thing you have to do is figure out your gridlock problem.”
Stone said the trend nationally has been to avoid creating new secure facilities. She said the state should address the traumatic experiences many of the girls in the system have had, rather than establish new places to lock them up.
“The challenge is: If they’re going to open it, how soon can they close it,” she said.
Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said that he still has concerns about the project but understands that DCF is still moving ahead with the plans and likely will have the facility open next month.
“I still have questions about it. I want to make sure this is the best model for girls, that it’s in their best interest and the best interest of taxpayers,” he said.