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A dozen years ago the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) was invited to Connecticut to meet with other advocates to talk about the state's efforts to reform the juvenile justice system. From that meeting the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance was launched and in the decade that would follow an amazing transformation took place making the state a model in juvenile justice for others to emulate.
In fact, Connecticut created the gold standard. Connecticut went from a juvenile justice system that was unsafe, neglectful, harsh, unconstitutional and overly punitive to juvenile offenders, to one of the best in the nation in treatment-oriented, humane, and cost effective practices.
These advances are what makes the most recent headlines sweeping across Connecticut and making national news most troublesome: "Conn. Dept. of Children and Families Petitions to Place Trans Girl in Male Prison," "Transgender Teen Sent to Connecticut Adult Prison" and "Transgender Teen Decries Solitary Confinement," to name a few.
The major rollbacks taking place in juvenile justice reforms is an eyesore for the state, and more so a setback for the thousands of voiceless citizens the changes were created to impact: the children in Connecticut's juvenile justice system.
The ongoing mistreatment of 16-year-old "Jane Doe," the transgender girl in state custody, should raise eyebrows as to why this is happening in a state that has such as stellar record in reforms on these issues.
"Jane Doe" has spent more than a week at the York Correctional Institute, an adult facility, in solitary confinement, being held without charges. According to reports, she has spent 22 to 23 hours a day alone in a cell.
Solitary confinement has been proven harmful to anyone, but especially young people. It can cause anxiety, paranoia, and exacerbate existing mental disorders and put youth at risk of suicide. In fact, youth housed in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than are youth housed in juvenile detention facilities. According to several state and national studies, at least half of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement. Further, transgender youth are also at exponentially greater risk of discrimination and bullying, physical and mental abuse, and psychological issues inside jails and prisons.
To utilize this inhumane treatment in the case of a child who does not belong in an adult prison in the first place is beyond alarming and is not only a Connecticut disgrace, but a national disgrace.
"Jane Doe" is under the care of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF). She has a history of being abused by family members and correctional staff, including rapes, beatings, sex trafficking and withholding of food. Instead of DCF acting in a manner that could help this youth, DCF has worsened the situation by transferring her to an adult facility under an obscure state law allowing courts to transfer a "dangerous minor" in state custody to an adult prison even if they have not been charged as an adult with any crime.
Connecticut is one of the states that CFYJ recently lauded for raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from age 16 to age 18. This change was made because Connecticut realized that children are different and should not be incarcerated with adult inmates. The treatment of "Jane Doe" is contradictory to the states own recent reform efforts.
In the midst of this national story, it is easy to overlook the other ways Connecticut is making attempts to "knockout" kids in the state.
Legislation aimed at discouraging the "knockout game" cleared the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut Legislature this week. The legislation is an attempt to curb the practice of sucker punching a stranger for entertainment. This bill would apply to criminal cases where an attacker strikes someone in the head without provocation and with the intent of knocking them unconscious. The legislation makes that attack a Class D felony with a mandatory two-year sentence. It also requires juvenile courts to transfer 16- and 17-year-olds accused of the crime to the adult criminal justice system.
There are already laws on the books for this: it is called assault and should be handled as such. Without evidence that this is actually a problem in Connecticut, the bill passed 29-10.
Connecticut youth are being attacked by DCF, and now state lawmakers. It is hard to believe that this is the same state that made so much progress in protecting our youth and recognizing that Connecticut youth deserve an opportunity for rehabilitation instead of punitive actions.
Connecticut's priorities when it comes to our youth are mismatched. Their focus should be on creating a system that return young people to their communities prepared to succeed and advance. Connecticut once served as a model for the entire nation in this arena. It is our hope that the state again finds its way. Our future depends on it.
Jessica Sandoval is vice President and deputy director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national organization dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youths under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system. For additional information visit www.cfyj.org.