Rell Drops Plan To Shut It, Says It Must Play A Bigger Role
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
February 10, 2008
Nearly three years after pledging to close the troubled Connecticut Juvenile Training School for boys in Middletown, Gov. M. Jodi Rell is not only keeping the high-security facility open, but is more than doubling the number of children there.
Rell has included $8 million in her proposed mid-term budget to expand the school's programs to handle an additional 120 children.
Robert Genuario, Rell's budget czar, said the additional beds are needed to handle an anticipated surge in the state's juvenile population when a new law raising the maximum juvenile age from 15 to 17 takes effect in 2010. The 16- and 17-year-olds who get into trouble now are processed in adult courts, prisons and jails.
The training school has a built-in capacity of 220 beds. Because there are about 100 young people living there, Rell's plans call for bringing the detention facility up to full capacity. No new construction or expansion would be required.
Asked why Rell changed her position, Genuario said she had no choice.
"For two years in a row the governor has proposed funding for the development of three alternate locations that would allow us to close CJTS and open smaller venues," he said. "But each year the legislature turned that request down."
The looming surge in juveniles, coupled with a lack of alternate secure facilities, forced Rell to keep the training school open, Genuario said.
"Frankly, we don't have any more time to waste," he said.
The training school remains an icon of waste, corruption and poor planning associated with former Gov. John G. Rowland's administration. The state's decision to "fast-track" the $57 million project and award the construction bid to a politically connected contractor became the focus of a federal inquiry into questionable state contracts that led to Rowland's resignation in June 2004.
Critics say the school — with its high-security perimeter fence, thick steel doors and smattering of small windows set in concrete — is a grossly overbuilt, prison-like behemoth that bucked the national trend of "smaller is better" when it was built in 2001.
The average cost of housing a child at the training school has ranged from $300,000 to more than $500,000 a year, depending on the ratio of youths to staff members.
Yet recidivism rates — the rates at which youths released from the school eventually return — have been estimated to be as high as 50 percent, and state Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal have repeatedly investigated allegations of improper restraints, poor staffing, inadequate education and vocational programs and poor supervision at the school.
Frustrated by the state Department of Children and Families' inability to turn the program around, Rell declared in August 2005 that she was shutting the school down. It was supposed to close by 2008 and at one point was considered as an alternate site for the state's Department of Emergency and Homeland Security and other state agencies.
Rell and the DCF wanted to replace the school with three smaller, regional facilities at a total cost of about $50 million. But many state lawmakers — already feeling burned by the DCF's promise that the training school was the answer to the state's juvenile woes — never really bought the idea. Many were leery of investing another $50 million in what they felt was another unproven idea.
"Throwing money at multimillion-dollar building projects has never solved DCF's problems," Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said last year when Rell's plans for the alternate centers were once again stymied in the legislature.
Legislators have long believed that with the right management and programs the training school could work, despite its physical conditions. Rell is hoping to do that with her latest proposal, which includes retrofitting existing buildings so the 12- to 15-year-olds will be isolated from older juveniles in their own 36-bed unit.
Part of the $8 million would be spent setting up a diagnostic and reception unit for new arrivals, a short-term respite unit for boys who need quick intervention after running into trouble in their home communities and transitional living quarters for juveniles close to discharge and preparing to return home.
Anticipating that some of the 16- and 17-year-olds entering the juvenile justice system will have behavioral health issues, Rell is also planning to add 12 more beds to the nearby Riverview Psychiatric Hospital for Children and Youth in Middletown at a cost of $3 million.
Advocates are cautiously optimistic about Rell's proposal.
Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, said she appreciates that Rell is trying to build smaller programs within the training school if it is going to stay open.
"I think it's a move in the right direction if they are taking a facility that is so large and breaking it down into smaller facilities," Anderson said. "It's a tough call as to whether CJTS can ever be an appropriate place. Anything that is done should be done carefully."
The alliance was one of the leaders in the effort to raise the age for juveniles, ultimately convincing lawmakers that teenagers would be better served by the intense counseling and rehabilitation programs offered in juvenile court than doing time in adult jails.
Connecticut is one of only three states that treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in its criminal justice system; the others are North Carolina and New York. The new law raising the juvenile age still allows serious juvenile offenders who are accused of such violent crimes as murder and rape to be processed in adult courts and jails.
State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said she was disappointed by Rell's proposal to expand the use of the juvenile training school. Walker said the whole point of the Raise the Age initiative was to give older teenagers the kind of intense counseling and support they need to stay out of trouble, "not move them from one jail to another."
"We need programs to help sustain children and families trying to succeed in Connecticut, not to build more prisons," Walker said.
Milstein said juvenile girls are once again getting forgotten in Rell's plans. The governor's mid-term budget did not include any plans to fast-track a long-awaited secure juvenile center for teenage girls that the state has been lacking since the notorious Long Lane School for girls closed five years ago.
Rell has set aside $11 million for a new girls' center but DCF has yet to build one. Leo C. Arnone, DCF's director of juvenile services, said the agency is pursuing plans for an 18-20 bed girls facility on state land, but a location hasn't been found and it could be three more years before it opens.
In the meantime, teenage girls who act out or slip into a crisis in community programs often wind up in local emergency rooms, sent to programs out of state or to the state's adult prison for women in Niantic, Milstein said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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