Christine Stuart photo
Liz Ryan, CEO of Youth First (Christine Stuart photo)

A poll of 500 Connecticut adults found support for moving toward a less restrictive and more rehabilitative system of juvenile justice for youthful offenders.

The poll paid for by Youth First and conducted by Gerstein, Bocian and Agne Strategies, found 61 percent of voters support closing youth prisons and redirecting the savings to community-based programs.

Liz Ryan, CEO of the Youth First advocacy campaign to end the incarceration of youth in prisons, said she believes the youth prison model should be replaced with less costly community based models.

The poll results show that Connecticut residents agree.

When it comes to the youth justice system, the poll found that adults in Connecticut place a premium on rehabilitation as a means to prevent recidivism. The poll also found that they believe taking responsibility is not predicated on incarceration and the system should not be incarcerating youth for offenses that would not be crimes if committed by adults, such as skipping school or running away from home.

Ryan applauded Connecticut for moving toward the closure of the Department of Children and Families’ Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced last year that the state is looking at closing the facility by July 1, 2018.

Connecticut also has the Manson Youth Institution, which is operated by the Department of Correction as a level 4 high-security facility and houses about 90 youth under the age of 18.

Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said this isn’t about closing just one facility or two facilities.

“It’s about understanding how do we work with our children in Connecticut to make sure that their life has an opportunity to grow and develop,” Walker said. “Yes, they’re going to touch the hot stove every once in awhile, but that doesn’t mean we condemn them for the rest of their life.”

There’s no plans yet to close the Manson Youth Institution. Walker, who also is the co-chair of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, said there wasn’t enough time for the committee to fully discuss closing that facility.

Calls to close the Connecticut Juvenile Training School came last summer after Child Advocate Sarah Eagan released security videos of staff at the DCF run facility using mechanical restraints and putting suicidal youth in seclusion.

Since the videos were released, the Department of Children and Families has changed its policies to prevent the use of restraint and seclusion as a way to control juvenile behavior in favor of more therapeutic “trauma informed” methods. However, for many advocates the facility is too much like a prison and will never be able to provide the therapeutic care they believe the children need in order to become successful adults.

But not all lawmakers believe it should be closed.

Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, has said there are “amazing” things happening at CJTS and maybe it would be better to keep the facility open and just “repurpose” it. She said she gets that the amount of money the state is spending per child “is way too high.” When the state housed about 120 children at the facility it cost about $545,000 to confine one youth for a year. Now, there are around 45 boys at the facility, no girls, and 330 staff members, so the cost to house the children is much higher.

Closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School is expected to save about $52 million.

The unions that represents the teachers and other state workers at the facility oppose its closure.