MIDDLETOWN — A working group tasked by the Judicial Branch with developing a plan for transferring youthful offenders from the Department of Correction is recommending that the state consider reopening the Connecticut Juvenile Training School to house young men while awaiting trial in adult court — but opponents of the idea say the state should instead focus on alternative solutions for youth offenders.
The recommendation, originally made in January 2022, was confirmed in an updated report published last week. In the report, the working group concludes that no unused state property exists that is large enough to both house young people and give them the necessary services.
“Given the extended length of stay, a facility that can adequately meet the educational, vocational, recreational, and other service needs of the transferred juvenile population is required,” the report reads.
The proposal focuses on four of the six buildings at the former Middletown facility, with the intent of creating a “developmentally appropriate rehabilitative and treatment focused environment.” The group estimated the cost of renovating four buildings of the training school at about $24.2 million, and that it would cost about $33 million annually to run.
Statistics from the Judicial Branch estimate the need for housing for approximately 50 juveniles.
The recommendation is a response to a law passed in 2021 that shifts custody of juveniles from the state Department of Correction to the Judicial Branch.
Under prior law, young people whose cases are transferred to adult court — which happens only with serious crimes such as murder, robbery, assault, kidnapping or arson — would be housed in either Manson Youth Institute in Cheshire or York Correctional Institute in Niantic, both adult correctional facilities.
Both the Office of the Chief Public Defender and the Connecticut Justice Alliance — a self-described “Youth/Adult Partnership working to end the criminalization of youth” — supported the legislation at the time it passed. Christina Quaranta, executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance, told CT Examiner on Monday that young people should not be placed in adult prisons.
“Adult prison itself is harmful for young people. Folks who have been inside of an adult prison and have been incarcerated there for any period of time have poor health outcomes [and] are known to die sooner than those who do not come in contact with adult prison,” Quaranta said.
She also noted that Manson Youth Institute had been under a federal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, which found that its practices “seriously harm children.”
“In terms of services and the education and having other needs met, they can be met much better within the youth legal system than in the adult system,” Quaranta said.
The working group suggested that the state undertake a study of the facility to examine the cost, design and time it would take to prepare it to house young people. The study would cost approximately $1 million and take between 18 months and two years to complete.
While nearly every member of the working group was in support of the idea, the Connecticut Justice Alliance voted against the use of the former training school. Rather than reopening the former training school, Quaranta said, the state should conduct an in-depth study on the teenagers currently at Manson Youth Institute and their needs.
Quaranta said the state should continue to focus on the REGIONS model, which places young people in small residential facilities, rather than being “concentrated in a big prison.”
“Repurposing the building at 1225 Silver St. in Middletown is not the answer. It just isn’t. It wasn’t when it opened and it isn’t now. And so it would be great if the Judicial Branch and the other folks in the group were able to see that we needed to do something different. This is our chance,” she said.
Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim said the city had not been notified about the plan. He said he shared the alliance’s concerns and that he hoped there would be opportunities for input during the study period.
Florsheim also noted the high cost of renovating and then operating the facility.
“I would personally rather see that money go toward our local youth service bureaus, juvenile justice boards, and other evidence-based approaches to reducing recidivism including those within the judicial branch itself,” he said. “I am sympathetic to the challenging problem the working group is trying to solve and plan to educate myself further, but at first blush this strikes me as a reactive approach to an issue that demands proactive solutions.”
Former Gov. Dan Malloy closed the facility in 2018 after a report from the Office of the Child Advocate listed cases of abuse, neglect, restraint and seclusion and over two dozen attempted suicides at the facility. At the time it was being closed, Malloy referred to it as a “prison-like facility” that was “making rehabilitation, healing, and growth more challenging.”
The state legislature would have to approve the use of the facility and funding for renovations.
State Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, told CT Examiner that the legislature was considering several potential options for where to house the young people, and that “there were a lot of questions” that needed to be answered before the body would make a decision.
“I think what we’ve been asking traditional bodies to do, in concert with juvenile justice experts, is evaluate potential options and see what would be involved. And so, as far as I know, nobody in the elgislature has weighed in pro or con at this point,” Lesser said.
As Middletown’s representative, Lesser also said he would consider what the facility’s reopening could mean for the city.
“We didn’t have local problems with CJTS operation, but we’ll certainly be mindful of any new facility’s potential impact on the community and the impact on the neighborhood,” he said.
But State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, told CT Examiner he was in support of the proposal.
“I think it’s a great idea. I think I had suggested it a few years ago,” he said. “We don’t want those juveniles that are charged with very heinous crimes to be around juveniles that are perhaps waiting overnight detention or something like that.”
Fishbein said the alliance’s concerns were “baseless” and that the opponents “would do anything to prevent a juvenile from being detained.”
He said he visited the former training school when it was in operation and was impressed by the facilities.
“When you hear juvenile prison … my perception is cinder block and cells. [There] was a library, basketball court, cafeteria — all of those things that I hadn’t pictured in my mind,” he said.
Quaranta said the idea that the alliance doesn’t want people held responsible for crimes or poor decisions was “a common misconception.”
“What we’re saying is that there is a productive way to work with someone who’s committed a crime, and then there’s a way that causes more harm and actually backtracks,” she said. “All we’re asking is that folks who are making these big, life-changing decisions … took the time to consider the science, the data, all of the research that’s been done that shows that diversion from the legal system, restorative justice practices, remaining in your community while repairing harm are far better returns on that investment than incarcerating someone.”
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee, did not respond to requests for comment from CT Examiner. State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, also did not respond to a request for comment.
When asked how the Judicial Branch would ensure that the concerns surrounding the training school’s shuttering would not be repeated upon reopening, Melissa Farley, executive director of external affairs for the branch, said there were “significant plans for renovation” and that she could not speak for the working group.
The report estimates it would be at least a decade before the facility — if approved for renovation and use by the Legislature — was ready to accept juveniles. Teenagers will remain with the state Department of Correction until that time.