It’s time for Connecticut to stop relying on past juvenile justice reform success and have the courage to acknowledge that we are failing our most troubled and traumatized children in the juvenile justice system by continuing to incarcerate them.

While this has been evident to juvenile reform advocates for over a decade, it became painfully obvious on September 17th during the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance sponsored forum on Alternatives to Youth Prisons. 

A panel of national juvenile justice experts confirmed that, despite national recognition for juvenile reforms, Connecticut lags far behind other states like Texas and California in reforms that are moving children out of juvenile prisons. The panel included Liz Ryan, founder and former CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ); Jeffrey A.  Butts, Director of Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) ; Fran Sherman, Clinical Associate Professor of Juvenile Law at Boston College Law School and Director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project; and Shaena Fazal, National Policy Director for Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. The Department of Children and Families was invited to participate in the panel but declined.

Juvenile reform advocates have questioned the value of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) since it was built during former Gov. John Rowland’s tenure. Identical to a now closed Marion, Ohio maximum security prison, the facility’s high barbed wire fence and prison cells memorialize the punitive juvenile justice practices of the 1990s, where policy makers believed that an adult correctional model was the answer for a surge of violent juvenile “super-predators,” who never arrived. 

Commenting before the legislative committee, Butts remarked that prison facilities like CJTS are symbolic of societal and political disapproval and policies of retribution that do not further the rehabilitation of children. He continued by saying, “We expect it to be a public safety system, but we also use words and labels to reflect that we hope that it helps [youths] stay out of criminal life styles and get back on a path towards a successful adulthood. Those two values are not always compatible and inevitably when they come into conflict the public safety mission always wins out.”

While the structure of CJTS cannot be blamed on former Gov. M. Jodi Rell or Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, both of whom have stated that they would not have built a facility like CJTS in the first place, or the current DCF administration under Commissioner Joette Katz, they must assume responsibility for continuing with a corrections model that, through the public release of deplorable videos, has shown the most vulnerable and suicidal youth subject to staff maltreatment.

This is an urgent and dangerous situation for the children still living at CJTS and the Pueblo Girls Program despite DCF’s claims that they are working to replace a corrections model with a trauma informed model of rehabilitation.

Sherman, who has expertise with juvenile justice involved girls emphasized that without re-design, there is no place for these kids to go but to adult prison. She also emphasized that, children, and especially girls, who have experienced emotional and physical trauma may respond to staff interventions with behaviors that are often misinterpreted as defiant behavior.

They can be further emotionally harmed by staff not trained to recognize the difference. Fazal emphasized that restorative practice with culturally competent staff together with a fundamental shift based on investing in youth and addressing their life experiences and the root causes of their behavior seems to work best with this population. Panelists highlighted the California Positive Youth Justice model as a program that addresses adverse childhood experiences as a vital part of the rehabilitative process to help children heal first in order to do better later.

It is only with the release of a highly credible and thorough report and the public release of shocking video evidence from Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, together with relentless public pressure from juvenile advocates, did DCF officials hire an expert, Dr. Robert Kinscherff to create an action plan.

Prior to such public criticism DCF had intractably defended CJTS to reform advocates and the legislature stating that no remedial action was necessary. It is especially troubling that Katz remains so resistant to any independent oversight of CJTS and Pueblo, and continues to minimize staff mistreatment of youth as “outliers.” 

William Rosenbeck, the superintendent of CJTS recently told a legislative committee that they “never” use restraints to gain compliance from children, only when a situation is deemed to be unsafe. However, he also testified that DCF had no policy definitions regarding what qualifies as unsafe behavior. Without clear definition or guidance, it is evident that staff are not using a reasonable definition of what constitutes unsafe behaviors.

It’s impossible to understand how six adult staff members felt unsafe with a girl whose “misbehavior” was that she would not put down a bowl of food. 

Katz cites census data as an indicator that CJTS is effective. A declining population has no relevance to how effective the program is without meaningful outcome measures of how children fare in the community when they leave. DCF cannot claim to be reforming any child without long term data that indicates positive outcomes for children who leave these facilities. 

Connecticut should have the courage to admit these prison facilities are causing further harm to very disturbed children and that attempts to “fix” CJTS and Pueblo will never comport with current national research and best practices shown to effectively rehabilitate youth. All system stakeholders should be invited to engage to create replacement programs that address public safety and provide our youth with the best chance to rehabilitate and be successful. 

Connecticut’s legacy of juvenile justice reform and the children who receive services from the system require immediate action.

Susan Storey is Connecticut’s Chief Public Defender.

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