Connecticut Lawmakers Debate Response to Repeat Juvenile Offenders

Spurred by a recent series of car thefts and break-ins, Republican and Democratic legislators are trying to identify and close the cracks in the system that have, according to police, allowed a handful of juvenile offenders to commit multiple serious crimes without facing significant consequences. 

Lawmakers have zeroed in on two major issues — better communication and information sharing between state and local agencies and improving juveniles’ access to services — in talks with police officers, Department of Children and Families, Judicial Branch, public defenders and representatives of the Connecticut Youth Services Assocation.

One idea under discussion among legislators is how to ease the process for police officers to put a juvenile offender into detention. Currently, police officers do not have access to juvenile records, meaning that if a juvenile from another town steals a car, the police don’t know whether it’s the first car he or she has stolen, or the fifth. And if the incident takes place outside of normal business hours, judges have no easy way to access that information, either.

State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said legislators are debating a requirement that police officers requesting a detention order reach out to probation officers for the child’s prior arrest record, and include it as part of a request for detention. Fishbein said that between 12 and 24 probation officers at any given time are available on a twenty-four hour basis and have access to those records.

Fishbein also said that legislators have discussed requiring judges refusing a detention request to file a reason for their refusal within 24 hours. 

State Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said that judges would likely be more willing to grant a detention order if they were aware that a teen had already been arrested multiple times.

Mike Finkelstein, chief of Police in East Lyme, agreed that having this information would be helpful to the police when dealing with repeat offenders from another jurisdiction. But, he also said that detention was only “a very, very small piece of the puzzle.” 

Finkelstein pointed out that there are only limited conditions that will allow a judge to sign a detention order. Under current law, the officer must be able to prove that the child is a risk to the community and that there is no less restrictive option for the child.

Finkelstein also explained that a detention order only keeps a young offender out of the community until he or she appears before the court, which Finkelstein said usually happens the next day. After that, the child could be released back to their parents, or to the community.  

“I couldn’t tell you what happens to any juvenile we arrest,” he said. “The focus is somewhat on detention … I think the larger issue is what happens after that.” 

What happens after

According to Judicial Branch data, juvenile court cases have dropped steadily from 12,320 in 2013-14 to 6,515 in 2019-20. Motor vehicle thefts dropped to record lows in 2019 to 5,994. According to Ken Barone, project manager with the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University, the 2020 increase was still below the level of motor vehicle thefts seen in previous years. 

Lawmakers and police officers say they are not aiming to detain first-time offenders. Their concern is the handful of repeat offenders who are responsible for large numbers of crimes. For example, at a press conference earlier this month, Christopher Chute, chief of police in New Britain, said his department had identified nine juveniles who were arrested each on average 18 times between the ages of 12 and 17. 

State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-East Hartford, estimated that there are about 100 to 200 people who are responsible for the majority of the crimes taking place across the state. 

In a July 9 talk on Facebook Live, Scott Samson, police chief in East Hartford, said that many of these young offenders haven’t taken part in any programs to help change their actions. 

“We see these kids coming in… 17, 18 arrests … they’ve never been in front of an official to say what’s wrong, they’ve never been in front of a social worker — anything to correct their behavior,” he said. 

Juveniles caught on their first offense can be referred to a Youth Services Bureau or to a Juvenile Review Board, keeping them out of the judicial system. Finkelstein said this usually happens with young people who are part of the community where they were apprehended, whose parents are willing to cooperate with the local agencies and whose crimes are less serious in nature. 

But repeat offenders face a different situation. These young offenders are either detained or released, and the biggest gap in services exists when a child is released to their parents with a summons to appear in court. These children don’t receive a court-sponsored assessment for services,  nor are their services available to the child through the Judicial Branch, according to Tasha Hunt, deputy director of juvenile probation for the Judicial Branch. 

One of the biggest concerns about children being released to their parents without any services is that they will commit additional crimes while they are waiting for a court appearance. State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said that legislators have discussed shortening the time that a juvenile can wait for a court appearance from 14 days to seven, with an assessment at that first appearance for a diversionary program.

Hunt said that if a child is placed in a diversionary program, a probation officer can start working immediately and connect the child to services. According to the Judicial Branch website, about half of juvenile cases are resolved “non-judicially,” through a diversionary program or other treatment program. 

But if a child pleads not guilty, has committed a serious offense, or has committed multiple offenses, they are required to go to trial. These children wait an average of four months between the time of their arrest and when their case is decided, according to Hunt. And if the child commits another crime within those four months, said Hunt, the case can take even longer to resolve. 

“A child potentially being assessed, or having access to service is really dependent on where they are in the legal process,” said Hunt. “Until the child is … essentially convicted of something, the attorney typically does not agree to have their client assessed or referred for services, because the case is still undergoing that judicial process.” 

“There’s no shortcut” 

Not every lawmaker agrees that the primary focus should be placed on the judicial system — or, at least, they don’t think it should stop there. Anwar and State Rep.Toni Walker D-New Haven, said that the state needs to improve the services available for youth in underserved communities before the young people have the opportunity to commit crimes, rather than waiting until they enter the juvenile justice system. 

Anwar told CT Examiner that investing in community programs and addressing housing and unemployment was critical if the state wanted a long-term solution to juvenile crime. 

“There’s no shortcut to it,” he said. “The return on investments is much more when you prevent crimes.”  

In a meeting of the Juvenile Justice Policy Oversight Committee on Thursday, Walker said that the committee members needed to consider the extraordinary stress that the pandemic created this past year. Children, she said, saw parents lose their jobs, experienced housing and food insecurity and lost healthcare — not to mention being out of school. 

“There were some children who had stolen cars who were living in the cars because they had no place to live,” said Walker. 

Stephan Palmer, a member of the committee and executive director of the Hartford mentoring organization Youth on Fire, added in the committee meeting on Thursday that just the experience of being detained can be traumatic for a child. 

He said the state needed to improve access to affordable transportation that would allow young people to work and give the juveniles tools for addressing the difficult experiences many of them have lived through. 

“Where are the programs before they steal the cars? What are we going to put in place to prevent them from stealing cars and to better their life at home?” he said. “I think there’s a lot of questions that are being skipped, there’s a lot of steps that are being skipped.”

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