By Anne Teigen
In April of 2018, the last boy was moved out of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown after Governor Dannel P. Malloy ordered the school closed by June of 2018.
“It placed young boys in a prison-like facility, making rehabilitation, healing and growth more challenging,” Malloy told the Hartford Courant. “The fact remains that this isn't a celebratory moment, but a time to reflect on the past mistakes made when it comes to juvenile justice, and an opportunity to create a system that better serves our young people and society as a whole."
Many other states are closing or considering closing facilities in their states. In January 2019, Gavin Newsome, California’s newly elected governor, unveiled his proposed budget, which included plans to shift control of youth prisons from corrections officials to California's Health and Human Services Agency, and to eventually close youth prisons.
The Wisconsin Legislature last year unanimously approved a bill shutting down the Lincoln Hills School by 2021 and replacing it with smaller state- and county-run facilities. (The new governor’s priorities could delay the school’s closure by a few more years.)
In 2015, South Dakota enacted SB 73, which focused on the use of out-of-home placements (such as correctional facilities) on serving youth who pose the greatest threat to public safety, while redirecting resources toward community programs for those charged with less serious offenses.
South Dakota subsequently closed the State Training and Rehabilitation Academy, its only remaining secure juvenile facility, a year later.
Kristi Bunkers, the director of Juvenile Services in South Dakota’s Department of Corrections said, “… The decision on facility closure was made in the context of reform as opposed to a negative event. It was a positive outcome of our reform efforts. The number of youth committed to our care had been steadily declining so the need for a large state-run correctional facility no longer existed …”
Closing the facility created substantial savings, allowing youth in state custody to receive treatment in smaller facilities closer to home. Additionally, the funds that previously supported the large state-run facility were reinvested into community-based services and grants for counties to help divert youth charged with low-level offenses from the justice system.
Closing large, state-run juvenile justice facilities is not without challenges. A recent report by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators provides advice, resources and tools to help juvenile justice agencies close facilities responsibly. Specifically, the guidance is intended to help policymakers and agency leaders who are closing facilities to:
- Meet the needs of youth, families, and staff, while maintaining public safety.
- Take advantage of changes in placements, staffing and funding to improve care, practice and conditions of confinement.
- Preserve and reinvest resources required to meet the needs of young people and achieve the agency’s mission.
The report suggests working with all stakeholders, creating a realistic timeline and early planning about selling or repurposing decisions. It also suggests prompt, accurate and frequent information sharing with youth, families, staff and other stakeholders about how the closure is proceeding.
The report contains entire chapters on meeting staff needs and meeting youth and family needs before, during and after closure. It also provides advice about redirecting resources to services in the community.
As states consider closing large state-run juvenile facilities, such resources can aide a smooth transition and ensure closures are a component of broader efforts to change juvenile justice systems.
Anne Teigen is the program director for NCSL's Criminal Justice Program.