Good riddance to outdated juvenile training school

There should be no mourning the closing of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown. The contract to build it played a central role in the bid-rigging scandal that drove Gov. John G. Rowland from office in 2004 and landed him in federal prison for a year. In the opinion of many criminal-justice and child-welfare experts, it was a $57 million boondoggle, already obsolete in its approach to handling juvenile inmates when it opened in 2001.

On January 1 the state stopped taking new admissions to the youth prison and last Thursday the last young person incarcerated there left the facility.

The state modeled the training school after an Ohio facility, which that state ended up abandoning in 2009 as ineffective. Located on 32 acres, its six buildings surrounded a central courtyard, able to warehouse up to 240 young prisoners. It never reached capacity.

By the time it opened, many states were moving toward a different model, using smaller residential facilities that were found to increase the chances of reforming troubled young people before they became career criminals. Recidivism at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School was high, with eight of every 10 delinquents housed there facing re-arrest within two years of their discharge.

In the years since its opening, the state has moved to a more community-based system, with the vast majority of young people with criminal records monitored at home or assigned to residential, group-home settings. Only the most habitual of offenders have been ending up in lockup.

Within a few years of its opening, Rowland’s successor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, recognized the training school was a mistake. But the state had invested heavily to build the facility and had no alternative available for housing serious juvenile criminals. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has also recognized the facility’s shortcomings, but faced the same dilemma.

But after a 2015 scandal — the Office of the Child Advocate released videos showing training school staff grabbing and dragging emotionally distraught young detainees into their locked cells — lawmakers pushed for closure.

As part of the compromise budget bill approved in October, the legislature ordered the closure of the training school and, effective July 1, transferred responsibility for young people adjudicated as delinquent from the Department of Children and Families, which had operated the Middletown facility, to the Judicial Branch.

The Malloy administration had been moving in the direction of making the Middletown facility unnecessary. Criminal justice reforms pushed by the governor have resulted in drastic reductions in youth arrests and imprisonment. In its last two years of operation, the population at the training school rarely exceeded 50.

Yet it is not clear that the state is ready for the transition mandated by the legislature. The Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch is seeking proposals for development of several smaller residential facilities, each with 10-12 beds, which will serve as the alternative to the closed training school.

Undetermined is what kind of response the state will get and whether the legislature has provided the financial support that is necessary. The budget provides $17 million, but Malloy maintains some of that money is necessary to continue alternative programs that are keeping young people out of the juvenile justice system.

Also unclear is whether the state is adequately prepared during the transition to manage that small percentage of young offenders who prove to be incorrigible, but whose crimes are not serious enough to qualify for treatment as adult criminals.

Our sense is that this transition to a post-training school model is, if not half-baked, is also not fully baked. The General Assembly will have to be prepared, even in these tight fiscal times, to provide additional resources should that prove necessary.

During this period of uncertainty and transition, the General Assembly has made the right decision in opting not to act on a proposal to raise the age of juvenile protection in the court system from 18 to 21. Some adjustment in the age of juvenile status may be in order, but not during the process of altering treatment and housing for those already in the system.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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