Parents, Advocates Seek Change For Offenders Under 18
February 21, 2006
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
Johnna Paradis fought hard to hold
it together the day she picked up her 16-year-old son from the Manson
Youth Institution in Cheshire.
He was so pale and gaunt, "he
looked like someone from a POW camp," Paradis said. "It
Paradis said her son, Christopher Wasicki,
who suffers from depression and bipolar disorder, didn't get critical
medication and thought about killing himself often during his four
weeks of hard time at Manson, a high-security adult prison where
he was confined to a cell for more than 21 hours a day for the first
Paradis is one of a team of parents,
advocates and state legislators making a push this session to keep
Connecticut's teenagers under the age of 18 out of the adult criminal
justice system. Connecticut is one of only three states - New York
and North Carolina are the others - that automatically try and incarcerate
teenagers 16 and older as adults, no matter how minor the offense.
The majority of the country considers 18 the age of adulthood, although
children under 18 can be sentenced to adult prison for certain crimes.
Members of "Raise the Age CT"
are staging a press conference, rally and information session this
morning in the Legislative Office Building to get attention for
their cause. Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, has already introduced
legislation this session calling for a change.
"Troubled children need treatment,
not jail, to turn their lives around," said Paradis, a single
mother from Stamford. "My son needed help and instead he was
sent to jail with no programs to help him. It is time to change
this law and give our children a second chance."
Talk of changing the age has been circulating
in the legislature for more than a decade. The primary obstacle
has been the measure's overwhelming cost. Judicial officials last
year estimated bringing 16- and 17-year-olds under the auspices
of the juvenile court system would create a 50 percent increase
in caseloads and cost the state up to $90 million to expand staff,
facilities and services appropriately.
Walker and other advocates believe
the cost was grossly overestimated, failing to take into account
long-range savings that would come with reduced recidivism and the
possibility that existing staff in the adult system could be transferred
to help ease the burden on juvenile courts. Walker's bill calls
for increasing the age gradually over two years to help develop
more community diversion programs for older youths and decrease
the immediate impact on the state budget.
In what many considered a first-step
victory last year, the legislature approved an expansion of the
state's youthful offender statutes so 16- and 17-year-olds are automatically
considered youthful offenders when they appear in adult court. The
move, which is expected to affect about 900 teens a year, limits
the maximum incarceration for such defendants to four years, provides
for their court hearings to be closed to the public and increases
their chances for special probation, counseling and other alternatives
This year, supporters are hoping to
gain broader support for their bill in light of a landmark U.S.
Supreme Court ruling last year that prohibits the execution of people
for crimes they committed before the age of 18. The court's opinion
relied in part on recent medical research that appears to show that
adolescent brains aren't mature enough to fully understand the consequences
of their actions until at least the age of 18.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for
the majority, noted "a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped
sense of responsibility are found in youths more often than in adults
and are more understandable among the young. ... These differences
render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst
offenders. ... The age of 18 is the point where society draws the
line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood."
The suicide of 17-year-old David Burgos
in Manson in July also has brought attention to the issue. Burgos,
sent to Manson for violating his probation after allegedly being
caught stealing, had a history of mental illness and struggled with
bipolar and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, his family
Burgos had been at Manson for about
four months when he hanged himself with a bed sheet.
"Connecticut's policy of locking
up children with adults has failed our youth and our communities,"
said Abby Anderson, a senior policy associate for the Connecticut
Juvenile Justice Alliance in Bridgeport. "It is a waste of
money, does not reduce crime and destroys lives."
More than 80 percent of the children
and youths tried as adults in Connecticut are arrested for nonviolent
property offenses such as larceny or minor crimes such as drug possession,
fighting and disorderly conduct, according to Alliance statistics.
Christopher Wasicki was sent to Manson in May 2004 as a result of
an alleged fistfight with another youth in his neighborhood. His
family raised money to cover his $10,000 bail and freed him after
four weeks. He remains on probation for that charge.
Each year in Connecticut, approximately
10,000 youths age 16 and 17 are automatically tried as adults, according
to the Alliance. Connecticut continues to prosecute them as adults
despite research showing that youths held in adult jails and prisons
are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and eight times
more likely to commit suicide than youths held in juvenile facilities.
Studies show that between 50 and 60
percent of children admitted to detention in Connecticut have some
form of mental illness or disability in need of treatment. At the
time Burgos was incarcerated, 18 of the 644 youths at Manson were
victims of abuse and neglect committed to the Department of Children
and Families and considered wards of the state. An additional 112
boys came from families with active abuse and neglect cases, DCF
spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said.
While state correction officials have
improved schooling and other services for younger inmates at Manson
in the past year, advocates say that when incarcerated with older
adults, youths under 18 still do not receive the quality of support,
counseling and other services tailored for them in the juvenile
The Manson Youth Institution is the
only high-security state prison for serious criminal offenders age
14 to 21. Most youths under the age of 16 are processed in the Superior
Courts for Juvenile Matters when they get arrested and many are
sent to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown or
other programs if a judge decides their case warrants confinement.
But some youths as young as 14 or 15 have wound up in the adult
criminal system due to a 1995 law which automatically transfers
serious juvenile felony cases such as murder, armed robbery or rape
to adult court. The proposed legislation to raise the juvenile court
age to 18 would not change that provision, supporters say.
From 1935 to 1971, Connecticut
treated children younger than 18 as juveniles. But like many states,
Connecticut responded to a surge in youth and gang violence in the
mid-1990s by adopting stronger laws that promoted "adult time
for adult crime."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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