The state’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee overwhelmingly approved a strategic plan for the next three years that includes reducing incarceration for youth, addressing racial disparities and setting age limits on children who can enter the court system.
The committee made up of legislators and stakeholders involved in youth and criminal justice issues will in the next few weeks start to form their 2022 legislative agenda which will likely include removing youth under the age of 18 held on adult charges from the state’s prisons, raising the age that a child can be arrested from 10 to 12 and requiring towns and police to seek the help of youth and juvenile review boards when dealing with low-risk kids.
The overall plan, which acts as a road map for future reforms of the juvenile justice system, and the recommendations for the 2022 legislative agenda come at a time when Republicans have been criss-crossing the state to drum up support for a tougher stance on crimes committed by teens.
The vote on the strategic plan was 27 in favor with two Republican legislators, Greg Howard, R-North Stonington, and Rep. Pat Callahan, R-New Fairfield, voting against.
Many of the Republican proposals including one requiring teens who get arrested while a case is pending to wear GPS monitoring were not included in the strategic plan or the recommendations for the legislative session.
Major long-term initiatives that were approved included limiting youth entry into the criminal justice system to reserve the courts for cases that can’t be resolved with diversionary or support programs, reducing incarceration for youth whether they are facing juvenile or adult court and reducing disparities by forming partnerships with communities of color and enhancing opportunities for community review of school and police practices.
Kids have suffered during the pandemic, said Erica Bromley, a Juvenile Justice Liaison with the Connecticut Youth Services Association. “Our kids are in crisis right now,” said Bromley who pointed out that funding would be necessary to provide services to avoid sending children as young as 10 into the juvenile justice system.
The JJPOC diversion workgroup that Bromley is a part of is recommending sending low risk kids under the age of 12 for services rather than an arrest and court proceedings. The legislature agreed during the 2020 session to raise the age of arrest from seven to 10.
“You’re seeing a lot more mental health,” said JJPOC Co-Chair Rep. Toni Walker. “I think this is starting to come up more and more. Community-based services are going to be critical.”
Youth who are incarcerated at Mason Youth Institution and York Correctional Institution need more healthy choices at the prison commissary and a wider array of hygiene products, according to the recommendations put forth by the incarceration work group.
The price of the goods also needs to be reviewed, said MYI Warden Derrick Molden. There’s a 30% markup on goods purchased by inmates, he said. “There should be a lower markup on essentials and a higher markup for comforts,” he said.
The DOC is required to submit a report to the JJPOC by January detailing the use of chemical agents on incarcerated teens. Since implementing deescalation training and techniques that allow young inmates to discuss the incidents that led up to the use of a chemical agent, incidents are down, said Eulalia Garcia, a state Department of Correction district administrator who oversees wardens and agency programs.
“The guys are making better decisions when it comes to talking things out before going hands on,” Garcia said.
The incarceration workgroup and the Judicial Branch Court Support Services Division have been working for months to form a plan to move youth under the age of 18 incarcerated at MYI and York to secure facilities outside of adult prisons, said CSSD Executive Director Gary Roberge.
The youth would be placed under the purview of CSSD which would provide services and educational opportunities, he said. The move would require secure housing for 45 to 50 teens, mostly young males, and an average of three young women who are currently housed at York CI, the state’s only prison for women.
Teens who are facing cases in adult court generally remain incarcerated an average of 140 days as compared to teens who are being held during a juvenile court case, which is an average of 23 days, Roberge said.
Any location that the Judicial Branch finds would have be able to provide areas for vocational and educational activities and address their needs developmentally, Roberge said. The incarceration workgroup report on the transfer will include the cost and any law changes that may need to happen before a transfer could take place, Roberge said.
The various workgroups will turn in their reports by January 1 in order for the entire committee to begin work on their legislative proposal.