Much like the adult criminal court system, juvenile cases are settled through plea bargains. A public defender and prosecutor work out an agreement and if the judge approves, it becomes official in court.

In many cases under those agreements, a juvenile delinquint is ordered committed for up to six or 12 months and released.

But now, the Department of Children and Families is challenging that practice. In an appeal of five juvenile cases that will be argued this week, the state Attorney General’s Office on behalf of DCF is asking the state’s highest court to declare those plea bargained sentences illegal.

DCF officials believe they should have the final say as to how long a delinquent should remain in their custody, rather than a judge who approves the plea bargain between a public defender and prosecutor.

The case is a matter of statutory interpretation and the assistant attorney generals say that the state law backs DCF on this. The statute, they argue, is clear. It requires that a judge order a sentence for any youth transferred to DCF commitment to be for an indeterminate period up to a maximum of 18 months for non-serious offenses.

“This [ongoing] interpretation would support the power to order, for instance, three-month commitments or even one-month commitments,” writes Nora Dannehy, deputy attorney general, who will argue the case on behalf of the state Dec. 4. “…The trial courts approached the delinquency dispositional commitments as being little different from adult criminal sentencing.”

Although juvenile criminal matters differ from adult cases by law in that rehabilitation is the prime goal rather than punishment, Dannehy says, in essence, the prosecutors and defense lawyers have been treating them the same. In reaching an agreement, the two sides in juvenile commitment cases weigh what a charge is “worth” in terms of time.

“But a juvenile is not committed to the Department for a definite period of time to serve a sentence; rather, a juvenile is committed to the Department for an indefinite period up to 18 months so that the Department may provide treatment and rehabilitation,” continued Dannehy in her brief.

Statute allows DCF to request that any commitment be shortened or extended based on how a youth is doing. At which point a hearing is held before the judge. Dannehy, however, argues that such short commitment periods that in turn require DCF to go back into court and ask for an extension “creates difficulties” with the juveniles’ rehabilitation.

In the appeal that was filed by DCF, Supervisory Assistant Public Defender James Connolly is representing the interests of five youths from Fairfield County who have already been committed to DCF custody for a determined period of time, mostly 12 months, per an agreement between a public defender and state’s attorney.

Connolly will argue that judges, based on the intent of the legislation, have the discretion to order a juvenile be committed for a determined period of time less than 18 months. He argues that since the statute reads that a judge may order commitment for a “maximum” of 18 months, then judges do have the authority to order less time.

Connolly further questions whether juvenile commitments are all rehabilitative and not punitive.

“Anytime you deprive someone of their liberty, it’s punishment,” he said.

Connolly said that unlike the adult criminal court system, juveniles do not get credit for time served before the sentence when sitting in juvenile detention beforehand or in this instance, having already served DCF commitment.

“It’s very difficult to explain to a young person, after they’ve sat down with their attorney at the trial court, came to agreement with prosecutors… and the judge authorized it… to get them to understand this is justice,” said Connolly.

The way Connolly sees it, the juveniles he is representing will feel wronged if DCF wins the case to have the sentences declared illegal. If that happens, one of the five juveniles, who is now living free could be re-committed for up to 18 months. The others still in custody could be re-committed to a new term of up to 18 months. “To them this is just unfair and they were deceived,” he said.

Connolly, who noted that less than 10 percent of all juvenile cases result in DCF commitment, said the appeals in these cases lead by DCF are “a terrible way to handle a juvenile matter.” Connolly said additional cases and their sentences are being challenged by DCF at the state Appellate Court level.

Former Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz became commissioner of DCF in February 2011. Connolly said DCF’s sudden displeasure with the way juvenile commitment cases were being plea bargained began surfacing in the spring of this year.

“I can’t say specifically if this was a decision of the commissioner or not but I think it’s fair to say there’s been a lot of litigation involving juvenile cases since [Katz] became [commissioner],” said Connolly.

Katz did not return calls seeking an interview last week but did send a short statement via e-mail saying she “had the opportunity to review and comment on the briefs filed on behalf of the Department. I obviously support the positions and arguments advanced and hope that the Court agrees with us.”

Lawyers handling the case for the state Attorney General’s Office also declined comment through a spokesperson, referring official word on their side’s case to the court briefs and Commissioner Katz.

Despite its own prosecutors agreeing to the various plea bargains in the juvenile commitment cases statewide, the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office has informed the state Supreme Court they side with DCF.

The Chief State’s Attorney’s Office, through a spokesman, referred comment on the case to a letter sent by Susan Marks, lead state’s attorney in the appellate unit, and Francis Carino, lead state’s attorney for juvenile matters, to the state Supreme Court justices saying their agency “adopts the legal arguments set forth in the brief filed by the Office of the Attorney General…” The letter did not elaborate as to why they supported DCF’s view.

Connolly said he was “very concerned” when he first saw the letter because he viewed it as “reneging” on the plea bargained deals made in court. Privately, however, he was told that the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office was taking a policy position on the issue but that the position did not necessarily reflect that of the individual prosecutors who entered into the agreements and are supervised by the head state’s attorneys in each jurisdiction.

Christine Rapillo, director of juvenile delinquency defense for the Office of the Chief Public Defender, said she was surprised by DCF’s sudden “hard line” stance on a practice that has gone on for years, especially since DCF can, with any committed juvenile, request an extension on the commitment.

Rapillo said the impact going forward on juveniles, if the state Supreme Court ultimately sides with DCF, could be significant and beyond just the simple fact the judge would have less authority and DCF more.

“It gives kids no incentive to plea,” said Rapillo, noting that the perceived maximum sentence would be given in any commitment case. “Kids still see it as a punishment…If there’s no ability to plea bargain a case, there’s no incentive to move things along.”•