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Juveniles, Joyrides & Justice: CT incarcerates fewer children than other states, but as crime concerns grow, some question if that's the right call

In Part 3 of our investigative series, "Juveniles, Joyrides & Justice," we examine youth recidivism rates, which data show have not suffered — even for high-risk young offenders who have been allowed to stay home and get treatment.

Behind the security fence, cameras and locked doors live seven children.

A 40-person team of social workers, teachers, chefs and mentors get paid to help them turn their lives around. The Regions Program for Boys in Hamden is where some of the teens who keep getting caught stealing cars or breaking other laws are sent.

“We tell a lot of the kids, this isn’t a punishment, it’s more of a second chance, let us help you get things together,” said Anna Andrich, one of several mental health staff members who work full time at the facility.

Not long ago there was a different place the state sent troubled boys — the Connecticut Juvenile Training School. That prison was closed after videos surfaced of children being violently restrained by correction officers and locked for days in padded cells by themselves, and a surge in staff injuries resulting from getting physical with the youth.

That facility incarcerated enough boys to host a whole basketball or football tournament. Now, at the Regions Program for Boys, there aren’t even enough boys to play a 5-on-5 basketball game. The smaller facility is also going for a different vibe — there are no correction officers or padded cells.

“It’s much smaller, so nobody gets lost in the numbers. I remember when I first went to see CJTS, it was startling to me,” said state Rep. Toni Walker. “There were so many kids, and they were all walking in pairs in unison, like a prison march. That’s not going to help them in any way to actually change their behavior.”

As co-chair of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee and leader of the state panel that oversees juvenile justice, Walker helped seal the closure of the Middletown facility.

Who are the boys?

The typical teen incarcerated in Connecticut is at least three years behind in school and on pace to drop out — or already has. Many have learning disabilities that their school never identified.

Almost all have unaddressed mental health conditions, and during their short lives they have experienced multiple traumas like watching their father sent to prison or violence in their neighborhood.

Some are foster kids, and the state is their parent.

Most are Black or Latino.

“A lot of times the boys don’t understand their emotions. They just feel like they’re angry all the time, and they don’t know what to do with it,” said Latasha Archibald, a licensed professional counselor at the facility. “One common emotion that I always hear is numbness. They may have been in a situation or environment that was invalidating.”

CT locks up fewer children than nearly every state

Most people can agree that the state should only remove young offenders from their homes and lock them up when it’s necessary to protect public safety.

But making that determination is not an exact science — and there is plenty of second-guessing when tragedies happen.

“The current system is failing. Our justice system is broken when it comes to juveniles,” said New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart.

She and others gathered outside the state Capitol a week after police say two New Britain teens in a stolen car killed a jogger while being chased by another driver whose wallet they were accused of stealing.

That teen driver had been arrested multiple times, including for stealing a car, and was released from the state’s detention center with an ankle-monitoring bracelet two weeks before the deadly chase.

“They get released repeatedly back to their parents. The young adult is not held accountable, and then they’re just continuously getting rearrested,” said Stewart. “And they know that nothing is going to happen to them. That’s not acceptable. You can’t save everyone.”

That case has focused the public spotlight on the state’s juvenile justice system and whether the state is too reluctant to lock up young repeat offenders.

Connecticut incarcerates children at one of the lowest rates in the country, an analysis of federal data by Connecticut Public shows. The state also has drastically fewer children on probation and intertwined in the juvenile justice system — about half as many as it did in 2011.

When children are arrested in a car theft, only 7% are detained upon their first arrest, but nearly half are if they have been arrested previously.

Over the last decade, state laws were changed to prevent children from being arrested for skipping too much school or running away from home. The state also stopped sending all 16- and 17-year-olds accused of breaking the law to the adult court system — one of the last states to “Raise the Age” — and reserved sending kids to the adult system for the most serious offenses. Laws were also passed that restricted police from being able to just drop off children they arrested at detention centers; now they need a judge’s order to do so.

This shift in how the state responds and treats children who break the law has caused a lot of drama lately.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Kevin Kelly said the reforms have been “poorly implemented,” and he believes the juvenile justice system is “more of a diversionary program than a rehabilitative program.”

“What are the results in the streets?” Kelly asked during a recent news conference outside the Capitol with other Republican lawmakers. “What we see every day when we wake up and open the newspaper is yet another crime, another victim, another bold and brazen crime occurring. And we can’t let that stand.”

kevin kelly.jpg
Yehyun Kim / CTMirror.org
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly (R-Stratford) answers a reporter’s question. Boards behind him show that shots fired in New Haven have more than doubled from 2019 and that car thefts in Connecticut increased by 42.5% between 2019 and 2020.

House Republican Minority Leader Vincent Candelora says repeat offenders get too many chances. State Republican lawmakers have released proposals to make it easier to lock up youth offenders.

“Our system is broken,” he said. “For an individual to be able to commit a crime — a violent crime, a crime that most individuals go to jail for — not just once but 14 times over the course of three years, and we continue to hear this story over and over about the recidivism.”

Recidivism rates during the downsizing

So have recidivism rates suffered during this transformation?

Not so much.

State data compiled for Connecticut Public show that about half the children who were not removed from their homes and sent to a locked facility or group home — but were still classified as “high supervision” by probation — were rearrested within two years.

That rate went down, then back up, and now it’s roughly the same as it was 10 years ago. And that’s despite far fewer children entering the juvenile court system today.

Recidivism rates for low- and middle-level supervised children followed a similar trend.

When children get into trouble again, it’s most often for low-level offenses. During the two-year period ending in 2020, the most serious charges filed against repeat offenders 63% of the time were misdemeanors, violations or infractions, according to court records. About 37% were felonies.

It’s unclear what went into deciding to release the New Britain teen from detention two weeks before he allegedly struck the jogger. Juvenile court records are sealed, and he and his family declined to be interviewed.

A friend of the jogger who was killed wants answers.

“On June 29, I lost my good friend Henryk Gudelski. He lost his life because when he was running, he got hit by this guy who was arrested 13 times,” Anna Dubil said through tears shortly after his death. “I want an answer. I really do want an answer: why this guy who killed my friend was on the street, was still not in jail, and killed my friend. Why?”

The judges who hear these car theft cases in the juvenile justice system declined to be interviewed about whether the system has enough capacity for youth who do need to be sent to a secure facility or group home.

What state data show is that there was capacity — and still is — at the detention center he left, the facility in Hamden and therapeutic group homes throughout the state.

Republicans, however, want a study done on where there may be gaps in the juvenile justice system — and whether it makes sense to reopen the juvenile prison in Middletown.

Gary Roberge, executive director of court operations for the Judicial Branch, said the system has capacity to house more juveniles, if judges determine it is necessary. He also said the pandemic has had an impact on capacity. For example, there was a COVID-19 outbreak at the detention center early in the pandemic that significantly delayed children from leaving.

“Kids continued to be admitted into detention, in certain circumstances,” he said. “Our residential respite programs never stopped providing services. I mean, we weren’t at 100% capacity. So if we have a program and there’s 12 slots in there, we may have gone down to eight so that we could distance the kids. We’re still trying to mine the data to see how effective we were and what can we learn from that.”

A backlog of cases in the court system also delayed getting children into programs like the ones Dan Rezende runs for Connecticut Junior Republic.

“The system has been shut down and is just starting to reboot,” Rezende said. “So the numbers in those programs have been low because that level kid hasn’t been going through the court system. Those programs are starting to pick up now.”

Children ordered by a judge for immediate lockup are sent to the Hartford or Bridgeport detention center. The typical teen stays there for between 10 and 60 days while it is determined whether they can go home, or need to be sent to a group home or the Hamden facility when their case is resolved.

State records show almost half are sent back home, about a quarter go to an unlocked residential facility, 14% to adult prison, 10% to foster care, 3% into a locked facility for juveniles and 2% to a mental health facility.

James Connolly and other public defenders who represent these children say they haven’t been witnessing judges deny requests for children to be detained.

“If law enforcement is saying, ‘Look, we constantly call these judges. We asked for these young people to be detained as a result of car thefts and high-speed chases, but no one is locking them up.’ That I don’t believe is true,” Connolly said. “I think it’s more likely that the law enforcement is not seeking out an order to detain these individuals.”

GOP: Send young repeat offenders to adult corrections

Republican state lawmakers want to make it easier to send young offenders into the adult corrections system.

“Currently, it is very difficult to transfer juvenile cases to adult court,” according to the Senate Republican 16-page reform package.

Prosecutors have the ability to ask a judge to transfer a juvenile offender to the adult system if state law doesn’t already mandate that it be automatically transferred. State data show that one 1 out of every 8 children arrested for stealing a car is sent to the adult corrections system because that property crime is associated with a more serious offense.

Of the cases involving car thefts that remain in the juvenile courts, about 15% of youth offenders are removed from their families and placed in a locked facility or group home, and 34% are allowed to stay home and are supervised by a probation or parole officer, based on a review of cases disposed within the past three and a half years.

About 5% of cases were steered into a relatively new program for first- and second-time youth offenders accused of stealing cars. Prosecution is suspended for those who participate.

Of the remaining 33% of cases, about half were dropped by state attorneys or dismissed by a judge, records show. The other half were discharged, meaning they were adjudicated and closed, often through a mutual agreement with the offender, court officials said.

Sharmese Walcott, the lead prosecutor for the Hartford Judicial District, said that her team sparingly requests cases to be transferred but that sometimes it’s necessary.

“The services that are available through the juvenile court, quite frankly, need to be more robust,” she said. “We need more options, we need more ways to intervene and help. We need programs that can adapt and bend. And in the adult court we do. We’re seeing a lot of cases that aren’t being transferred and possibly should be.”

She said there are really two options for the juvenile system: keep kids at home or house them in a secure facility.

“There’s just not enough in between,” she said of the need for short-term respite facilities.

But requiring all children caught stealing a car more than once or accused of other offenses to be automatically handled by the adult court is a mistake, says Iliana Pujols, policy director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance, an organization that works with youth to advocate for smart reforms.

“For kids who have been in the adult system, they will straight up tell you it is a completely different experience, and not in a good way,” said Pujols. “The way that they’re treated there is more degrading. It’s not a system that’s designed to serve young people.

“I think we have to unpack that kind of solution, taking a look at the impact of being incarcerated, and what that does mentally, physically and emotionally to a child who is still developing,” said Pujols.

Republicans say the shift is necessary because there are more services in the adult system. Critics don’t believe that’s accurate and say no such analysis or study has been done to back that claim.

A study commissioned by the state before the age was raised to 18 found that up to 75% of teenagers sent to the adult system were receiving no rehabilitative services. After the age was raised, the number of youth incarcerated in adult prisons dropped drastically — from around 200 children on any given day in 2010 to about 40 this year.

“This notion that there’s more services and resources in the adult system shouldn’t call for a transfer, it should call for more investment in JJ services,” said Pujols. “When you get into the adult system, that’s a permanent record for these kids. And that ultimately impacts housing access, access to career and job, you know that’s a lifelong impact, and there’s no room for a second chance.”

Back in Hamden, it’s too soon to know whether the secure facility that opened in the middle of the pandemic will have better outcomes for the youth sent there than the prison that closed in Middletown, or adult prisons.

Between 75% and 84% of the youth who were released from Middletown were rearrested within two years.

It’s hard to compare recidivism rates over time for those who have been removed from their families to live in either a locked facility, psychiatric facility or group home because the state removed jurisdiction of that system from the Department of Children and Families a couple of years ago.

Among the child offenders the Judicial Branch removed from their homes, 76% reoffended in those two years, but that was before the Hamden facility opened.

There, the kids will be able to leave with a certification to become a barber, forklift operator or food handler. They will also hopefully be back on track to graduate from high school, get a driver’s license when they leave and enroll in some extracurriculars.

“They’re children. They’re still young. They still are developing. It's very important for all these boys to have as much support as they possibly can in their lives," said Archibald, the counselor at the facility.

The costs to operate the facility — and give those who are sent there all the help they need — is $7 million a year.

The Judicial Branch thinks this new model is a good investment, and the branch hopes to open another small facility in the Hartford region.

Coming Friday: Part 4, the final installment in our "Juveniles, Joyrides, & Justice" series, where we look into solutions being proposed by both sides.

Read the beginning of the series:

Do you have a story that needs to be investigated? Submit your news tips here or email us at tips@ctpublic.org