By Christopher Keating
The state plans a new initiative aimed at inmates ages 18 to 25 that would dedicate one of its 18 existing prisons to male inmates in that age group, and create a separate program for women in that age range within York women's prison in Niantic.
The concept is based on research showing that the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25, said Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's chief criminal justice adviser.
"What we know to be true is that age 25, regardless of gender, is an important milestone in youth brain development," Lawlor said Thursday.
"If you get it right, they're much less likely to re-offend down the road," he said. "If you get it right, you get really good outcomes."
Of a total prison population of 15,807, there are currently 3,092 inmates18 to 25, the Department of Correction said. Of those, 635 are 25 years old.
Scott Semple, commissioner of the Department of Correction, will designate the existing prison facility taht would be specifically for the men in that age group. Plans call for it to open by January 2017.
The state already has specialized prisons, including the super-max Northern Correctional Institution in Somers.
"We have Mansion Youth Institution that deals with offenders up to 21, 22 years old," said Lawlor, a former Democratic legislator and former co-chairman of the judiciary committee. "Most of them are in that one facility. Even within that facility, they're separated out -- based on age. ... Based on the fact that younger offenders are different, let's deal with them differently."
As in the rest of the United States, crime has been dropping steadily in Connecticut in recent years. The steepest drop within the state is among young criminals, Lawlor said.
"The 18-to-21 group has dropped by 52 percent in the last six years," Lawlor said. "This is a national phenomenon, although the magnitude is greater in Connecticut. Nationally, crime is down. Arrests are down."
Connecticut would become one of the first states to have a facility that exclusively houses and deals with inmates in this age group.
Some of the ideas behind the changes are based on what the governor and Semple learned last summer in Germany. Lawlor said he was on vacation there at the same time, though he was not on the official trip, and took part in discussions with German prison officials.
"In the German system, if you get arrested at 21, you come in presumptively as a juvenile," Lawlor said. "This is not unusual in northern Europe. We're learning."
The research has also shown that some older prisoners do not change their ways.
"People understand the concept that you can't teach an old dog new tricks," Lawlor said. "You've got more to work with with a younger mind. If you're amenable to treatment, let's match you up."
He added, "Having a 21-year-old kid hanging around with a career criminal, bank robber and murderer probably doesn't make a lot of sense."
Segregating the younger inmates also protects them from abuse and manipulation by older prisoners, Semple told The Associated Press.
"This is the most impulsive population," Semple said. "They tend to be involved in more assaults and things of that nature, and what we are trying to do is impact that."
The department is seeking input from educational and other experts and is looking at a behavior-modification curriculum that the Department of Children and Families uses with youthful offenders to determine if aspects of that would work in the prison.
"What I envision is that incident rates will go down systemwide," Semple said. "It also gives us the greatest potential to reduce the recidivism rate in a large way."
B.J. Casey, director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Cornell University, said she is pleased that a prison system is considering developmental changes in young people when dealing with their rehabilitation.
"I hope with these changes that special attention will be given for opportunities for these individuals to engage in prosocial behavior and to have prosocial role models in preparation for their transition back into society," she told the AP.
Semple said the initiative does not require legislative approval, and that he will look at the prison system's own budget for funds before seeking any additional money.
"Some things we're going to have to find resources for," he said. "It is going to require specialty training for the staff."
In July, Malloy took a first step toward changing the criminal justice system by signing a bill initiating the Second Chance Society, which includes reduced penalties for drug possession and helps nonviolent offenders reintegrate into society.
An Associated Press report is included in this story.
(c)2015 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)