Juvenile changes occurring outside of Capitol building

Major changes are underway for Connecticut's juvenile justice system, even though proposals to raise the age of juvenile protection from 18 to 21 and give judges more discretion to lock up kids considered dangerous to the public won't make it to a vote during the current legislative session.

The juvenile bills did not make it out of committee.

Though it's possible lawmakers could add parts of the juvenile proposals into other bills at the last minute, most of the action is taking place outside of the Legislative Office Building.

The last boy held at the scandal-plagued Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown was transferred out of the locked facility on Thursday, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy issued a news release declaring the "outdated facility" has been closed.

State agencies are scrambling, since the Judicial Branch will take over responsibilities from the Department of Children and Families. There are approximately 200 girls and boys aged 12 to 17 deemed delinquent and committed to state custody each year.

The Department of Children and Families, which operated the CJTS, declined The Day's request to tour the facility before it closed. Gary Kleeblatt, spokesman for DCF, said Thursday that of the 200 youths currently committed as delinquent, 170 will remain committed come July 1. He said there would be no layoffs as a result of the closure of CJTS, and that about 300 employees have been transferred to other state jobs.

Gary A. Roberge, executive director of the Judicial Branch's Court Support Services Division (CSSD), said the branch has issued requests for proposals for a secure, or locked facility, and for unlocked "staff secured" facilities, each with 10 to 12 beds, throughout the state. Roberge said it would take about a month to receive and review the bids and that the branch is working hard to have the necessary services in place by July 1. About $17 million has been appropriated for the transition from DCF to the Judicial Branch.

"We have worked very closely with DCF to ensure there hasn't been a disruption of services for these kids during this fiscal year," Roberge said in a phone interview. "Moving forward, we're always going to be measuring our effectiveness to better serve the kids."

The Judicial Branch is familiar with the delinquent juveniles because the children come into the system through the juvenile courts and many are held at branch-operated detention facilities in Bridgeport and Hartford for up to 15 days — or longer with a judge's order — while their court cases are pending.

Juveniles who are prosecuted as adults due to the seriousness of their charges are under the jurisdiction of yet another state agency. They're held at the Department of Correction-operated Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, where DOC spokeswoman Karen Martucci said there are currently eight offenders between the ages of 15 and 17.

Closure of training center praised, more work to be done

Child advocates have been pushing for the closure of the CJTS, where it was revealed in 2015 that children were isolated in padded rooms and improperly restrained by staff. But some worry that during the transition, children will be sent to out-of-state placements or linger in the detention facilities in Hartford and Bridgeport, even though those facilities are intended for short-term stays.

"I don't think the transition was as planful as it could have or should have been," said attorney Martha Stone of the Center for Children's Advocacy. "The new facilities haven't come online yet and the bids won't even be done."

Chief Public Defender Christine P. Rapillo said the number of children confined at CJTS has been declining in recent years and the facility was averaging a population of 50 kids before the decision to close it.

"I think we've done a better job of diverting kids out of the system at the front end so they don’t graduate to the juvenile training school," she said.

Still pending before the General Assembly is a bill that outlines the transition process and represents a consensus of the agencies involved, Rapillo said. Though she and others were hopeful it would pass, the show will go on.

"The (Judicial Branch) doesn't have the legal authority over those kids yet," Rapillo said. "DCF still does. I think they (the Judicial Branch) will be ready when they need be. The bottom line is, they have secure detention centers that they have said repeatedly that they don't want to use."

She said the operators of the detention centers do their best to make them friendlier for juveniles, but there's still control panels and locked doors.

With the transition underway, Rapillo said making other changes to juvenile justice this session would be a bad idea.

Connecticut raised the age of juvenile protection to include 16- and 17-year-olds in 2011, and Gov. Malloy, during his final legislative session, proposed gradually raising the age from 18 to 21 by July 2021. The expansion of juvenile protection is in keeping with research about young people and brain development and, in putting forth the proposals, Malloy said preventing those under 21 from being exposed to adult courts and penalties reduces the rate of recidivism.

Harder to lock up serious juvenile offenders

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Francis J. Carino, supervisory prosecutor for statewide juvenile matters, said he's concerned by lawmakers' failure to give courts more discretion to lock up the most serious juvenile offenders.

"I don't know what some of them are thinking up there," Carino said in a phone interview. "I deal with the police and victims and some of (the juveniles) in courts. I'm concerned about the 5 or 10 percent that are doing serious crimes."

Because of juvenile reforms in recent years, Carino said, it's "getting harder and harder to to put the kids in detention when they get arrested and put a stop to their activity until we can figure out what happened."

Members of the Judiciary Committee last week debated a proposal by the Division of Criminal Justice to give judges discretion to detain juveniles if they were determined to be a risk to public safety and if it was in the child's best interest. Several members of the joint committee said the proposal was going in the opposite direction that the state has been moving with respect to juvenile justice, and the hearing ended before a vote was taken.

Carino said since 2015, juveniles age 14 and under who are accused of Class B felonies, including first-degree manslaughter and first-degree robbery, no longer are transferred to adult court. He said a small percentage of young teens who commit serious crimes are emboldened because they know they won't face significant consequences in the juvenile system.

In New Britain, a 13- and 14-year-old who attacked a pizza delivery woman, causing her to lose an eye and suffer several broken bones, are facing, at most, a four-year commitment to a juvenile facility, Carino said.

"If a 14-year-old walks into a school and shoots a half-dozen people, that kid is looking at four-year confinement," he said. "You have to think of the public safety element in this."

Carino said that changes should have been made within the Connecticut Juvenile Training School rather than closing the facility altogether. He said the CJTS was accredited by a number of organizations and had changed its policies on restraining and isolating children.

"As of today, I'm not aware of any comparable facility to put these kids in. We don't have one yet. I know Judicial is scrambling. I don't think the state can move that fast all of the sudden."

k.florin@theday.com

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