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A Better Prison For Connecticut Teenagers

February 8, 2005
Betsy Morgan

Connecticut should raise the age at which teenagers enter the adult justice system from 16 to 18 and put the failed Connecticut Juvenile Training School to appropriate use by housing those 16- and 17-year-olds there. To put teenagers into adult prisons is both inhumane and self-defeating.

There is no question that the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, which opened in 2001 in Middletown, is a failure. At best it is a $57 million example of terrible planning.

The old Long Lane School was an open campus of attractive, if aging, buildings for 200-plus children under 16, with one secure building for 30 to 40 serious offenders. In contrast, the new Connecticut Juvenile Training School has been built, frankly, as a prison. From the street, you see a menacing perimeter fence. Inside are tiny, bare cells, a third of them without windows.

Everybody is embarrassed by how CJTS turned out. There have been efforts to improve it. One of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's early official actions was to add $1 million in such touches as expanding window sizes and covering walls with murals.

No matter how tough on crime we may want to be, the fact is that Connecticut does not have 250 children under 16 for whom this kind of secure, punitive facility is appropriate.

All past studies of children at Long Lane and CJTS have shown that only a quarter to a third were serious offenders. The rest were runaways, truants, kids fighting with their parents, parole violators and petty miscreants who stole or vandalized, or were caught with a few ounces of marijuana. Far too many were mentally ill. More than 60 percent were Department of Children and Family cases - abused or neglected. Remember, these are children 15 or younger.

These children should not - must not - be at a place like CJTS. The new head of DCF's juvenile justice division, Donald DeVore, recognizes this. Greatly to his credit, he has moved all but serious offenders out of CJTS. With the right services for them and for their families, these children can get back on track.

There remain 60 to 80 children who do need to be in CJTS, even if they are rattling around in a facility for 250. The cost is astronomical. It used to be said that the cost of keeping one teenager in prison for a year was the same as sending him or her to Harvard, around $40,000. The cost for one 15-year old in CJTS is more like $400,000. This can't continue.

How to make good use of the juvenile facility? Keep teenage offenders out of adult courts and adult prisons until they turn 18.

Connecticut is one of only six states that tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults and sends them to regular prisons. Most authorities regard Connecticut's practice as pretty much a guarantee that 16- and 17-year-olds will be abused, hardened and schooled in crime. On this, Connecticut is keeping company with states like Mississippi and Oklahoma. Even Texas has us beat.

There is a win-win opportunity here. Raise the age at which youths enter the adult system from 16 to 18, and send 16- and 17-year-olds to the juvenile training school. Invest in making CJTS the model rehabilitative facility that was promised when the taxpayers were asked to ante up $57 million. Donald DeVore - the best new hire in juvenile justice in decades - can make it happen. All of our troubled young people will benefit. The state will recover some of its self-respect.

Betsy Morgan is director of the Middlesex Coalition for Children.

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.
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