Courtesy of CT-N
Jason Szanyi, deputy director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy (Courtesy of CT-N)

HARTFORD, CT — A national non-profit organization that advocates for the elimination of racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system is recommending that Connecticut create a separate executive branch agency to address youth incarcerated in adult prison settings.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy studied the state’s housing policy for those under 18 charged or convicted of certain crimes and held in Manson Youth Institution on the grounds of Cheshire Correctional Institution, or York Correctional Institution in Niantic.

The recommendation comes as the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee examines ways to get such teens out of adult prisons.

About half of the young men who are inmates at Manson are there for two years or less, said Jason Szanyi, deputy director of CCLP. The average stay is 81 days and the median stay is 21 days, he said. York, which houses only women, has only a handful of juveniles at any given time.

Szanyi gave the committee a presentation on options for youth placements during its monthly meeting Thursday.

Juvenile justice systems across the country are moving to a model where teens are kept out of adult prison settings in favor of residential placement with rehabilitative programming, Szanyi said. Two studies examined by the center concluded that the transfers out of the juvenile justice system to the adult prison system were “not an effective strategy” and instead produced kids with longer criminal histories, he said.

“It had the unintended effect of increased recidivism,” Szanyi said.

Public safety outcomes are better for the teens who were placed in alternative programs rather than adult prison, Szanyi said.

After reviewing several options with the committee, Szanyi recommended that the state create an executive branch agency that deals solely with incarcerated youth — and keeps them out of the adult prison system altogether.

The agency would manage a “continuum of residential placement options for youth under the age of 18,” he said. The move would standardize services for all youth and take placements out of the hands of judges who also adjudicate cases.

The recommendation comes at a time when juvenile justice programs in the state are in flux. The legislature shut down the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, a large facility for youth offenders on probation under the purview of the state Department of Children and Families. It placed the teens under the supervision of the Judicial Branch 18 months ago.

The Judicial Branch has had to restructure programming and residential placements, including placing some teens in revamped detention centers before secure residential settings could be found. The dust is finally settling on that transition, but Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who co-chairs the JJPOC, indicated that the committee’s work had to focus on what “is in the best interest of the child, that is in our charge,” she said.

A representative of the state Department of Correction acknowledged to that the federal Department of Justice is investigating conditions at MYI, which houses sentenced and pre-trial male inmates under 21.

“We look forward to this investigation,” said Angel Carros of the DOC. The DOJ will be on site Dec. 4 and 5 looking at issues including whether restrictive housing practices, inadequate mental health programs and inadequate programs for those with special needs are violating the youth inmates’ rights.

A report issued in January by Sarah Eagan, the state’s Child Advocate, flagged issues with youth incarceration at MYI which included a lack of educational programs, extended “solitary” confinement, few mental health treatment programs and the use of pepper spray on teens.

MYI houses about 50 boys under the age of 18 on any given day. The majority are of color — a fact that concerns advocates and legislators. A state review already has determined that teens of color are more likely to be referred to adult court under the discretion of prosecutors and judges, said Abby Anderson, Executive Director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.

“Our data shows it’s not a factor of previous history or the severity of the charge, but the color of the kid’s skin that led to them being in the adult prison system,” Anderson said.

Anderson wondered why the teens needed to go to adult court if they were only spending about three weeks incarcerated at MYI. “So we have a kid who is deemed so violent he needs to go to adult court, but he’s incarcerated for 21 days and let go,” Anderson said.

The data is changing the old narrative that “these kids are the worst of the worst, so bad that they are getting life sentences,” Anderson said. “But 50 percent of them are there for less than two years.”