Debate Over Future Of State’s Juvenile Jail Intensifies

February 24, 2016

Hartford Courant
HARTFORD – The 16-year debate over the future of the juvenile jail in Middletown kicked into a higher gear at the legislature Tuesday, with a top Republican saying excessive restraints and seclusion warranted closure, while two leading Democrats called for a “repurposing” that emphasizes its strengths as a school.

Built during the administration of Gov. John G. Rowland, the Connecticut Juvenile Training School was controversial even before the no-bid construction work was finished. But the stakes have never been higher and the debate, as framed by Sen. Leonard Fasano on one side, and children’s committee co-chairs Sen. Dante Bartolomeo and Rep. Diana Urban on the other, has never been more intense.

The maximum-security compound for boys costs nearly $53 million a year to run, and as of Tuesday, there were only 43 juvenile offenders confined there, down from 140 last year. CJTS was built with 250 cells.

Children’s rights lawyer Martha Stone and other advocates have said that for the $545,000 annual cost of confining one boy at CJTS, the state could fashion an individual treatment plan for each of those youth and be more successful. Parole officers over the last year have pointed to an increasing recidivism rate at CJTS and said many boys who have passed through there are graduating to the adult prison system.

Much of the state watched in horror in July when Child Advocate Sarah Eagan’s office, following an 18-month probe that revealed an overuse of restraints and seclusions, released several of the facility’s own surveillance videos. The images showed some staff members violently restraining youths who were being disobedient, but who were not fighting.

The recent focus on CJTS has also made it more clear in the last year that the Department of Children and Families is struggling, and sometime failing, to provide adequate mental-health treatment to some of the most troubled teenagers in the state.

But at the same time, the well-equipped and staffed school within CJTS has had success working with teenage boys who have failed in public school. CJTS teacher Paula Dillon testified that the training school’s educational component could be expanded to serve as a classroom for as many 150 boys involved in the juvenile-justice system. Dillon said CJTS’ vocational programs could become a statewide resource.

Also, judges do need a locked facility to which they can send juvenile offenders who have failed repeatedly while on probation.

“If you close CJTS, what then?” asked Urban, of North Stonington. “Let’s step back, at least until after we see the effect of ‘raise the age’ legislation. Don’t rush into something we will regret.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is pushing to raise the age at which offenders can be treated as juveniles. If that legislation passes, it could create more candidates for a place like CJTS.

But Malloy has also come out in favor of closing the training school — by July 2018. Republicans have proposed closing it by January 2017. DCF Commissioner Joette Katz testified Tuesday that the earlier deadline is unrealistic, and said she is proceeding under Malloy’s time frame. Katz said she is rounding up national experts to help create a substitute for the 38-acre, fenced compound.

Bartolomeo, of Meriden, and the assistant majority leader, said she disagrees with Malloy’s call for closure.

She said during Tuesday’s public hearing that the facilities may not exist to replace CJTS. She said that offenders aged 15 to 19 who have been tried and convicted as adults could be moved to CJTS. Those offenders are now in the adult prison system, at the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire.

Bartolomeo said DCF has made significant strides at CJTS since the surveillance videos were released in July and that other bills before the children’s committee would further increase the amount of therapy offered to boys confined at the training school.

And Urban, in an interview outside the hearing room, said she has “a lot of confidence in Commissioner Katz.”

Fasano, on the other hand, has called for Katz’s resignation four times in recent months, and he testified that a recent investigation by the child advocate of the 2014 death in Plymouth of 2-year-old Londyn Raine Sack showed the weaknesses that he said plague DCF and have marked Katz’s tenure. The child died of an overdose of her mother’s prescription drugs. DCF did not remove Rebekah Robinson’s children until after the toddler’s death, despite a string of child-protection complaints against Robinson, and a request from Plymouth police to investigate possible child abuse in the household.

Fasano, the minority leader, of North Haven, said the same lack of accountability exists at CJTS.

“Close it, move the offenders to the judicial [branch, which operates pretrial detention centers], and place the low-risk kids in community programs. Some can go back home, if they can get the help. This can happen. I’m not saying it will be easy.”