March 1st marked the anniversary of when the first youth prison opened in Connecticut, in 1854. As our legislators are planning the future of our juvenile justice system, it is important to look back and see how we got the system we’re trying to reform, starting with that first facility 164 years ago. The Connecticut State Library has excellent resources on this dark history.
In 1848, Connecticut abolished slavery, though it was still allowed by federal law. Just two years later, a group of white citizens in New Haven wrote to the legislature, demanding “a House of Reformation for juvenile offenders . . . under fifteen years of age”. Some officials publicly supported the idea out of concern for children who would otherwise be sentenced to adult prisons, but the racial context is clear. When The State Reform School, as it was called then, opened in 1854, it housed young black boys who just a few years earlier, or a few miles away in a different state, would have been enslaved.
African American youth are still more than ten times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated in Connecticut today, and are more likely to be given harsher sentences for similar offenses. It’s one of the highest racial disparities in the whole country.
In the 164 years since that first youth prison opened, a lot has changed. Back then, most surgeons didn’t wash their hands, due to outdated beliefs about germs and disease. The American Civil War had not begun. Kansas and Nebraska wouldn’t even become part of the United States until later that year.
Today, we know that germs exist, so doctors scrub their hands before performing surgery. We also know that youth prisons don’t work. Studies, like this one from Harvard, have proved over and over again that youth prisons increase recidivism, hurt long term educational and employment outcomes, and cause lasting mental and physical health damage. It is time to apply this modern knowledge and truly update a juvenile justice system that is, unfortunately, still close to its slavery-era roots.
When the Connecticut Juvenile Training School closes on July 1st, 2018, it will end this outdated, immoral, and ineffective practice in our state. Now, we have the chance to build a system based on the latest behavioral science and psychological knowledge. We can intentionally work to correct those deep racial biases, providing resources to under-served communities instead of taking kids away from their family and friends. We can move juvenile justice in Connecticut into the 21st century, and lead the way for other states that are becoming increasingly aware of the data on this racial justice issue.
–Christina & The Justice Advisors