middletown press / hearst file photo

As we’ve consistently said during the two-year period since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced that Connecticut’s prison for boys, the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS), would close, the goal should not be simply to close a building. In fact, in many ways CJTS is a symbol. It symbolizes what we believe about youth, their capacity to change, and their worth.

In calling for CJTS to close, we are NOT calling for the kids to simply be released home or to be kept in pre-trial detention. We are calling for the development of a juvenile justice system that works for even the most challenging youth with the most unacceptable behaviors.

There is no doubt that the transfer of responsibility for the deepest end juvenile justice youth like those at CJTS from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to the Judicial Branch encompasses challenges. Challenges always offer opportunities. Remember, the DCF’s work to reduce the census at CJTS means there are only 50 youth who need alternative interventions. DCF is already providing services to another 120-150 of their committed delinquent peers in residential programs or their homes.

The Branch can design a system to serve this new population based on the most recent research and best practices. A system that treats youth and their families as partners. One that rigorously examines data, policies, and practices that cause and exacerbate the racial inequities throughout our juvenile justice system. An integrated system of care that allows kids and families to move seamlessly across programs and services from intake to discharge. A system where assessment and evaluation of need are ongoing and flexible. A system that will include residential programming, some of it secure for those kids who are a risk to others. And where that secure care will be provided in small, treatment-focused, trauma-informed, and individualized environments, with multiple options available for different sets of needs.

This kind of system promotes accountability. The kids at CJTS have made bad choices, and many have committed serious offenses. We want them to learn that their actions have consequences, to understand that their actions affect other people, and to work to repair any damage they caused. Institutions teach children to survive within institutions. Our goal is for them to be successful within families and communities.

We also believe accountability is a two-way street. This year, DCF and the Branch’s Court Support Services Division (CSSD) worked together to analyze the records of the youth at CJTS. The findings indict all of us. According to the review, the youth at CJTS were almost universally identified very early in life as needing help: many were exposed to drugs in utero, had incarcerated parents, and lived in homes subject to multiple abuse/neglect investigations. A large number of these youth have neurodevelopmental disorders, significant mental health and psychiatric diagnosis, and/or are identified as needing special education. All of them presented with complex trauma backgrounds. Yet, their first contact with the court system was typically at 13. Many systems knew and worked with them before that time.

Could the medical, child welfare, probation, mental health, or education systems have prevented their entrance into or escalation within the justice system? In the same way we hold youth accountable for their actions and choices, we must hold ourselves accountable for making choices that ensure every system that serves children is adequately funded and held accountable for its results.

The juvenile justice system is the most expensive way to address the needs of youth and their families, so reallocation into earlier interventions will yield savings and better outcomes. Community based and non-institutional programs are not only less expensive than large prisons like CJTS, research shows them to be more effective, with lower recidivism rates.

Forming a reimagined system to achieve our shared goals of less offending and better outcomes for youth requires us to be bold. To work together. To put our money behind our words. It’s a public safety issue. It’s a racial justice issue. It’s a public health issue. The 50 kids in CJTS may not constitute a large number, but their symbolism is huge.

How we move forward in our work to replace CJTS will make a strong statement about our state’s priorities, principles, and goals for the future. We believe the future can be bright.

Abby Anderson is the executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. She can be reached by .

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