Lawmakers Debate Repeat Juvenile Offenders as Crime Rattles Local Communities

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, asked Democratic lawmakers to join him in signing a petition to bring the legislature back into special session sometime this summer to address a recent rise in juvenile crime. On Wednesday afternoon, Republican and Democratic lawmakers met at the Capitol to discuss the proposal.

But while some community members, police officers and Republican legislators spoke of fears of a spike in teenage crime, calling for stricter punishments for repeat youth offenders and the restoration of juvenile services and facilities sacrificed to funding cuts, Democrats questioned the need for broad punitive measures, saying that data places juvenile crime at an all time low, and youth advocates pressed for individualized, community-based solutions and services that they say may be the more critical piece of the puzzle. 

Juvenile crimes have been making headlines across the state. 

In Enfield, a 17-year-old was arrested last week after breaking into several vehicles. A juvenile in Glastonbury shot at a homeowner last week who called out to them while they were attempting to break into a vehicle. And last week, a 53-year-old New Britain man was killed in a hit-and-run while out jogging. The driver of the car, which was stolen, was a 17-year-old who had been arrested 13 times in the last three-and-a-half years. 

Wolcott Mayor Thomas Dunn said during a press conference Wednesday morning that it wasn’t just adults who suffer the consequences of these incidents; they also put the teenagers themselves in danger. 

“Every single car that gets stolen in our town smashes into something,” he said. 

Erin Stewart, the mayor of New Britain, said that the legislature needed to come together and have a discussion about how to deal with the escalating crime taking place in New Britain. 

“It starts as petty thefts, petty crimes, right … and it’s turned into a lot more violence since then. Now we’re breaking windows. Now we’re pulling people out of their cars and stealing their cars while they are in them. Now we have no regard for human life. And we’re driving over people on the side of the road, when does it stop?” 

Stewart said that the problem was a criminal justice system that had been systematically defunded over time.  

“Our justice system is broken when it comes to juveniles,” she said. “That comes from years and years of chipping away at it and eliminating the programs that are meant to rehabilitate our kids.” 

Both Stewart and Edward Stephens, chief of police in Wolcott, emphasized that the laws they wanted in place were specifically directed at repeat offenders. 

“We’re not saying that every juvenile offender should be incarcerated,” said Stephens. “That’s the farthest thing from the truth. Many juveniles do things they regret, and with proper supervision and guidance they don’t commit any more crimes and become productive citizens.” 

Christopher Chute, chief of police in New Britain, said his department had identified nine juveniles who were arrested an average of 18 times between the ages of 12 and 17. Their crimes included larceny, stolen motor vehicles, theft of a firearm, assault of police, reckless driving and criminal mischief. 

Chute also said that there had been a 300 percent increase in shootings from 2019 to 2020 in New Britain, and that many of those individuals were repeat juvenile offenders. He also expressed concern about an increase in what he called vigilantism — members of the public trying to confront these juveniles directly. 

“There’s a lack of faith in the system, and we need to restore that public trust again, because it’s not there,” Chute said. 

Pursuit, release and detention 

At the press conference Wednesday morning, Candelora highlighted several problems he saw, including provisions in the police accountability bill that often prevent a police officer from engaging in pursuit of a vehicle. He also cited a law that compels police officers to release juveniles after being detained for six hours. 

Chute said there had also been times when his department had arrested a juvenile but were unable to obtain a detention order. Instead, he said, the judges placed the teens into the custody of their parents or guardians. 

Candelora said that part of the problem was a lack of programs in the state for rehabilitation and detention facilities for the juveniles. He referenced the 2018 closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown, saying that the school was shuttered without any alternative placement strategies for juveniles. Candelora said that sometimes these youthful offenders are placed into group homes that are meant for children with behavioral issues. 

“What’s happening is they’re being put into group homes, into communities that aren’t set up or equipped to be handling these types of individuals,” said Candelora. 

He said that often, the police and the government don’t know where the juveniles are housed. In instances when juveniles are returned to their families, he said there is often no contact with the Department of Children and Families, leaving the young people in a vulnerable situation. 

“I think there needs to be a conversation of what type of detention facilities and the adequacy of those facilities that we have in the state of Connecticut,” he said. 

A “scalpel approach”

Later Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford said that Democrats and Republicans  had a “productive first meeting,” but he was not ready to commit to a special session.

“This meeting was not intended to redraft all the criminal justice reforms we’ve had over the years,” said Ritter. He suggested instead a desire to take a “scalpel approach,” looking mainly at policy changes and possibly amending state statute. 

State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, said the Judiciary Committee would need to have additional meetings and talk to law enforcement, prosecutors and the judicial branch about the best way to make policy changes. 

The meeting included representatives from both parties in the House,  and a Republican senator, but no Senate Democrats. 

State Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, accused Republicans in a statement of using the recent hit-and-run in New Britain “to attempt to score political points in an effort to push failed, excessively punitive policies from the 80s and 90s.” 

Democrats offered examples of changes they were willing to consider, such as allowing judges the ability to look at a juvenile’s past criminal record, and allowing judges more discretion for holding juveniles in custody. They also discussed the possibility of allowing a parent to request ankle-bracelet monitoring for a child repeat offender. 

Stafstrom said that lawmakers also needed to consider how to provide services to young people released into a guardian’s custody and still awaiting a court appearance. 

“How do we get services, how do we get intervention to that juvenile before the date of their adjudication?” said Stafstrom. 

State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said lawmakers need to take a look at whether police officers have been able to obtain detention orders for juveniles — a law passed this session will require the judicial branch to collect that data beginning October 1. 

“The question is, are they being applied for, and are they being denied, and are they being granted?” he said. “I want to see the data.” 

Are communities safe?

Despite the high-profile cases publicized in the news media, William Carbone, executive director of the Tow Youth Justice Institute at the University of New Haven, said that Connecticut is actually at a low point in juvenile crime compared to the last 40 years, even after a 2007 law expanded the definition to include 16 and 17 year-old offenders.

Carbone said the expectation was that once 16 and 17-year-olds were transferred to juvenile court, the total number of juvenile crimes would increase. This did not happen. 

Data from the Connecticut Judicial Branch showed that the number of juveniles committing crimes dropped from about 9,100 in 2010 to about 5,100 in 2018. Data also show that the number of motor vehicle thefts, traditionally a crime dominated by young people, has significantly declined since the 1990s, and hit a record low in 2019. The number of youth admitted to the two state youth prisons fell from nearly 2,000 in 2006 to 121 in 2019. The number of juveniles in pre-trial detention during the same time period fell from just under 3,000 to just over 1,000, according to the non-profit policy and research organization The Urban Institute.

Carbone attributed the drop to improvements in education, better economic situations in the cities and better responses within the justice system over the course of four decades. 

“[The data] really should tell us that the reforms initiated in Connecticut, including Raise the Age, have been effective at making our communities much safer,” he said.  

Carbone said that any legislative proposals deserve consideration, but should be research-based.

He said he didn’t see the need for more punitive legislation, and that research showed that incarcerating juveniles makes it more likely that they will reoffend when they are eventually released. 

But members of the Glastonbury-based organization “Safe Streets” voiced support at the press conference for a special session to address the issue. The organization formed as a response to an accident in June on Route 17 in which three young adults and two juveniles stole and crashed two vehicles. 

Safe Streets member Laura Hancock said her organization supported a special session to discuss the problems that communities are facing. She said Glastonbury residents didn’t feel safe in their community.

“We feel like our police are not being supported,” she said. “We want to protect and we want to keep our property safe and we want to feel safe in our homes.” 

Others disagreed with the idea that there needed to be harsher punishments for crime. Will —  a “Smart Justice leader” with the American Civil Liberties Union who refused to provide his last name — said that elected officials needed to address such problems as gentrification, poor educational systems and the shutdown of social programs during the pandemic. 

“The solution is you go to the neighborhoods,” he said. “You ask them what they need for help. There’s a lot of single parents out there that need help. They’ve been asking for help through the whole entire pandemic.” 

“Not one blanket statement”

Meanwhile, representatives from Connecticut’s Youth Service Bureaus offered their own strategies for addressing crime among young people. 

Mallory Deprey, director of the Youth Services Bureau in New Britain, told CT Examiner that her organization had seen a recent uptick in juvenile offenses. She attributed the increase to the pandemic. 

“Kids are going to be kids, they get into mischief,” she said. 

But Justin Carbonella, director of the Youth Services Bureau in Middletown, said that youth arrests in Middletown had decreased, and that the majority were instances of behavioral health problems. 

Deprey and Carbonella said the pandemic had created additional stressors for young adults that could have spurred them to commit crimes. Duprey mentioned the stress of living in low-income families with parents who had lost their jobs. When remote schooling began, teenagers whose parents had to go to work became responsible for their younger siblings. They also suffered from isolation and anxiety as their means of recreation were taken away from them. 

“All these positive outlets that kids can go to, sports programs and afterschool programs … were shut down,” said Deprey. 

Carbonella, who runs a juvenile review board and is organizing summer camps focused on restorative justice, said he understands the desire to increase punishments, and he believes people have a right to feel safe in their neighborhoods. 

“At the end of the day, everybody deserves the right to feel safe,” he said. “People’s property should be sacred.”

But he said that responses to juvenile crime needed to take into account adolescent brain development. He said he wasn’t convinced that harsher punishments would result in the outcome that people wanted. 

“You look at how adolescent brain development kind of guides the behavior and the thought process of young adults — harsher statutorial punishments don’t necessarily impact their day to day behavior,” he said. 

Instead, Carbonella said it was important to connect teenagers with their communities, and to provide them with the necessary skill sets and strategies for self-regulation, for dealing with frustration and making decisions. 

“The solution is bringing them closer to community and closer to relationships while holding them accountable,” he said. 

Deprey said that her bureau works with community organizations, YMCAs, the Parks and Recreation department and other prevention programs to provide programs that keep young adults in New Britain engaged and out of trouble. The bureau also has a juvenile review board and works with restorative justice practices. But Deprey said that criminal offenders present a different type of challenge.

“That’s nothing that a [juvenile review board] could even address,” she said. She said that the legislature needed to make laws that would create consequences for repeat offenders. 

Deprey said that not every offender should be placed into a facility, but that facilities can sometimes be the best option when parents don’t want their children living with them, or if the child continues to run away from home. 

She also said that juveniles are well aware of the laws, and the fact that they will not suffer the same consequences as an adult in the judicial system. 

“They know that if they are committing a car theft or breaking into an abandoned building or selling drugs even, they know they can’t get tried as an adult,” she said. She added that this can also spur adults to train these children to commit crimes that adults would receive much harsher sentences for. 

Yet Deprey stopped short of suggesting particular legal solutions. She said that juvenile justice really has to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. A one-size-fits-all law, she said, simply won’t work.

“I think there’s not one blanket statement that can address [every] one individual,” she said. “ [A] blanket statement is a disservice to the community as a whole.” 

Carbone agreed. 

“You have to begin with the fact that this is a minor, it’s a child,” he said. “We have to truly understand what got them to the point of committing this offense.” 

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