We are going to close the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS), and that is going to say a lot about our state.

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) recently released a plan laying out a path to closure by July, 2018, as championed by Gov. Dannel Malloy. But when I talk to people who don’t live and breathe this work, I still hear, “No juvenile prison? Really?”

Really. Finally. In 1973, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals stated: “No new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed.” We knew that these places were failures over 40 years ago, before I was born. The drumbeat has never ceased. One day after DCF released its plan, Harvard University and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) issued a paper calling for the closure of all youth prisons. The report notes that these facilities do not improve behavior – and may make it worse.

The authors produced decades of research showing that juvenile prisons are bad for youth and for public safety, and are expensive. This is nothing new or radical – or unique to Connecticut. Massachusetts got rid of its training schools in the 1970s.

It is shocking that it took this long for more states to wake up. The Harvard/NIJ paper does a good job of explaining why: “A fundamental reason that the failed youth prison model has persisted for 170 years is that the youth, families, and communities most affected are seen as ‘others,’ not as ‘ours’…”

Last year, the Office of the Child Advocate found that all youth at CJTS had a mental health diagnosis – and many had multiple serious psychiatric disorders. Most also had experienced trauma. It defies logic and humanity to send these boys to live in cinderblock cells behind a towering fence. Imagine what our reaction would be if we realized we are talking about OUR sons and brothers.

Certainly young people who break the law do need to be held accountable. But the ways we choose to address their behavior should prepare them to be successful and responsible. Prison only pushes youth toward criminality.

DCF’s plan recognizes that youth in the juvenile justice system are individuals who live in families – the most crucial step to imagining a world without youth prisons. The plan wisely calls for concerted efforts on behalf of any youth at risk of incarceration. Family and all professionals involved in a youth’s care should come together and develop an individualized plan to surround the young person with services that will help him or her be successful—if possible at home, by far the healthiest environment for any child.

Some youth do need to be in a locked facility for public safety’s sake. But it need not be a prison.

Massachusetts houses youth who pose a risk to public safety in small, more home-like secure facilities, where they learn to be responsible members of a community. DCF’s plan calls for the creation for one or more of these small secure facilities. It is possible, however, that the number of youth requiring locked beds is so small that existing non-profit providers could meet the need more affordably.  That is how Connecticut already serves the most complex girls in the juvenile justice system. It is time to explore the same strategy for boys. A data driven analysis of the youth in our system must be done to determine how many truly need to be in secure settings.

These are details that can be worked out, because we have the will to do so. DCF’s plan calls for additional community-based services to prevent incarceration. Community-based services are an enormous bargain compared with CJTS – where we spend about $30 million a year to lock up 45 boys. But given the state of the budget, any new appropriation will face a challenge. How we resolve that issue will say a great deal about us all.

In committing to a community-based system, we refuse to lock any child away out of sight and out of mind. Instead we truly see the lives of our most disadvantaged youth and resolve to help them and their families. We refuse to be the kind of people who could label any child as “other.” Closing CJTS will be good for kids. It will also be good for the rest of us.

Abby Anderson is executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.

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