Calls for reform of the Connecticut’s juvenile prison system are growing louder now that a coalition of juvenile justice advocates is demanding the closure of the Department of Children and Families’ two locked facilities for youth.
“A wealth of research and the experience of other states show that correctional facilities offer the worst outcomes for youth at the highest cost,” the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance said in its 24-page report.
The group said conditions must be improved immediately at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School and the Pueblo Girls Program. It recommended closure of the boys’ facility within 18-24 months and the girls’ prison “much sooner.”
It is the latest in a series of reactions to two reports released last month outlining abuses at the facilities. One report was released by Child Advocate Sarah Eagan and another by Robert Kinscherff, an expert from the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice.
Among Eagan’s findings were 532 cases of physical restraint and 134 cases of mechanical restraint over a 12-month period. There were 225 incidents of seclusion lasting four hours or longer and 100 lasting eight hours or longer — and those incidents included children who were in mental health crisis or threatening to hurt themselves. Between June 2014 and February 2015, there were at least two dozen cases of children in the facilities trying to kill or hurt themselves.
Now the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance is asking the state to look at successful models in states like Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, and Texas to see how ending juvenile incarceration can help youth and society.
Transitioning to community-based programming in smaller-scale or residential settings has resulted in a host of benefits including lower juvenile crime rates, less recidivism, and a lower cost to taxpayers, according to the report.
But Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz said in a statement that the state’s response to addressing the needs of youth who get into trouble with law enforcement overwhelmingly consists of community-based services designed to prevent future arrests.
“Only a tiny fraction of youth referred to the juvenile court system as a result of getting in trouble with the law are served in a secure setting,” she said Tuesday. “While approximately 11,000 youth are referred to the juvenile system annually overall, the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) had only 64 boys in it as of yesterday. Five girls were being served at the Pueblo Girls Unit. While the number of youth served are at the lowest levels ever, the Department is committed to improving both programs by reducing the use of restraints and seclusions and improving the clinical treatment the youth need to have a greater chance to be successful when they return to their homes, schools, and communities.”
But juvenile justice advocates say putting children in prison does not promote life-long success. The alliance’s report cited the “Missouri Model” as a way to focus on treatment and rehabilitation instead of detention. The midwestern state uses small, non-institutional facilities in communities where the youth can actively engage in school or work, the report said. More kids in the Missouri juvenile justice system graduate high school than the national average and they are more likely to stay out of trouble once they get out.
The alliance said 69 percent of youth released from the program “remained law abiding” for three or more years. By contrast, a Georgia study found that 65 percent of youth released from juvenile prisons were arrested as adults within three years.
The alliance pointed to Texas to illustrate what an invested legislature can do to compel change. There, lawmakers mandated closing of some facilities, prohibited incarcerating youth for misdemeanor offenses, and increased funding for community supervision and community mental health services. According to the report, the state reduced youth incarceration by 65 percent between 2007 and 2012 — a move that helped lower the juvenile crime rate by a third.
“Successful realignments of juvenile justice systems depend not just on closing youth prisons,” the report said. “They also offer better options to address the root causes of delinquency.”
Advocates say community-based programming also helps address the disparate impact incarceration has on minority children and their chance for success as adults. Statistics from the Connecticut Juvenile Training School Advisory Board show that 49 percent of boys admitted to CJTS in 2014 were black and 31 percent were Hispanic.
“The state’s research shows that young people of color are more likely to be committed to the training school for identical offenses than white youth are. This indicates that use of the training school and Pueblo are not entirely determined by risk,” the report said.
The Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance began in 2001 as a joint effort of the Center for Children’s Advocacy, Connecticut Voices for Children, the Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership, and The Tow Foundation.