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Teen Crimes, Adult Prisons

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 was horrible."

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 two weeks.

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 to incarceration.

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 said.

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 court system.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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