Connecticut aims to break school-to-prison pipeline

By Christopher Zoukis

Connecticut is moving to implement a series of juvenile justice and education reforms aimed at cutting the school-to-prison pipeline after a series of complaints were lodged about problems plaguing the state’s system.

Governor Dannel Malloy has already moved to close the Connecticut Juvenile Training Program by 2018 after multiple reports of violence, unlawful restraint, and extended use of solitary confinement, and lack of concern shown in regards to issues of mental health and self-harm. There are similar complaints at the neighbouring Pueblo Unit for girls. Inmates have already been reduced from over 160 to less than 40, and alternatives are being looked at to house juveniles that need a confined place for residential treatment.

The new bill focuses on education, reducing expulsions, and ensuring that students who are expelled have access to suitable alternative educational programs – something that is mandated by the Constitution of the State of Connecticut and children’s fundamental right to an education. This is the basis of many complaints against the State Department of Education and the Governor, as currently there are no standards for the quality of educational alternatives that must be provided to expelled students, which has resulted in substandard education for many of the 1,000 students that are expelled every year in the state, of which a disproportionate number are black children.

According to media reports, a 6th grade girl was given less than 3 hours per day of instruction in her alternative program, and said that work was too easy, no guidance or support was given, and little feedback was received. One 8th grade boy was expelled after an alleged delinquent act outside of school, though charges were later dropped, and was given a tutor for only 10 hours per week for 4 months after which he was out of school for a year when he was barred from enrolment in another school district, and was not offered any alternatives. 

The bill will reduce expulsions and time in courts as school officials will be mandated to handle disciplinary matters in-house, including truancy, and alternative education programs will have to meet certain minimum standards, and help transition students back into the regular schooling system after their expulsion time is over. Parents must also be given the chance to attend an expulsion hearing, with a chance to appeal, and given at least 5 days’ notice of the hearing.

Gov. Malloy has also proposed raising the age at which at which juvenile offenders are sent to adult courts, up to 20 years old and there is a move to segregate those under 25 who commit less serious offenses which would be considered misdemeanours.

Going forward, the bill is a good start at reforming the education and juvenile justice systems, although there will still bework to do – plans must be put in place to expand community services, identifying effective truancy models, and reducing recidivism, although budgetary issues remain a concern.

It’s good to see a growing number of states and school districts move towards reducing zero tolerance punishment and out of school expulsions, and working towards keeping kids in school. Notes Martha Stone, director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy: “These are the most needy students. They need more education, not less.” Absenteeism, suspensions, expulsions, and court involvement for minor offenses are a huge disadvantage to youth, and only contribute to marks and ability well below grade level, missing the development of socialization skills, a lack of supervision and guidance, and often ultimately, future involvement in the justice system. We need to keep ensuring that as many children as possible stay in the education system, and give them the best education and guidance possible.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com