As Talks Break Down, Lawmakers Debate Juvenile Crime, Practical Solutions

After a series of bipartisan talks on juvenile justice reform broke down last week, on Tuesday, Republican lawmakers released a series of proposals that would increase penalties for juvenile offenders, give police officers and judges greater access to information and require monitoring and state interventions for young people in certain cases. 

The joint talks began last month and involved legislators, police chiefs, and representatives from the state’s Department of Children and Families, the Public Defender’s office, the Judicial Branch and the State’s Attorney’s office. Both State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, and State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said that the talks broke down last week after a press conference held by Democrats on Friday. 

Some of the ideas the Republicans presented Tuesday, such as allowing police officers to detain an arrested juvenile longer than the current six-hour limit and making records available to judges after-hours, were already being discussed in the talks. 

State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, told CT Examiner in the past that there have been discussions around shortening the amount of time a juvenile would wait for a court hearing, and assessing juveniles for intervention at a first hearing. At present, a hearing must take place within 14 days. Fishbein said the Republican proposal would require a hearing the next day for serious juvenile offenses.

“A lot can happen in 14 days,” Fishbein said at the press conference on Tuesday. 

Other proposals suggested on Tuesday were new to the discussion. One would automatically transfer juveniles who commit certain violent offenses to adult court — including those involving a firearm, that result in serious harm to another person or violent sexual assaults. Another would create “larceny of a motor vehicle” as an entirely new crime, one that would be transferred automatically to adult court after a second offence regardless of the vehicle’s value.

Fishbein said that he saw transferring juveniles to adult court would mean their cases would not have to be sealed, and would allow for greater penalties.

“If one commits a murder and they are convicted of the murder in adult court, there is a severe penalty,” said Fishbein. “In juvenile court, the same crime, the maximum penalty is 30 months of supervised probation.” 

The Republican lawmakers also proposed requiring juveniles to sit before a victim impact panel, or a group of individuals impacted by a similar crime to the one they committed. Fishbein said this was a practice sometimes used in DUI cases. 

The lawmakers also proposed mandatory fingerprinting of juveniles arrested for felonies and certain misdemeanors, requiring that hearings be heard in court in the district where the crime took place, rather than where the juvenile resides and allowing municipalities to offer tax credits to people who purchase security devices for their homes or their cars. 

“We have not addressed the need” 

Winfield said that the policies the Republicans proposed, including GPS monitoring and implementing victim impact panels could have some merit, depending on how they were applied. But he said there needed to be a focus on the data, and whether crimes are or are not increasing. 

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, in 2020 that number increased to 8,439 — the highest it has been since 2008, but still well below its peak of 26,254 in 1991.  

Walker argued that the data shows that crime has been increasing not just in Connecticut, but across the country and the world. At a press conference last Friday, she talked about the negative effects that the pandemic has had on children — shutting down schools and taking away jobs or work-study programs. 

“Our emergency placements, our hospitals, our mental health centers are bubbling at the seams with the number of children – children – who have mental health issues … because we have not addressed the need that has transpired because of the pandemic,” Walker said on Friday. 

Candelora said that regardless of whether crimes are or are not increasing, the legislature needed to be “asking questions” about why violent youth offenders weren’t receiving consequences. Winfield however, said on Friday that the idea that there are no consequences for juvenile offenders is “absolutely incorrect.” 

State Rep.Toni Walker, D-New Haven, told CT Examiner that the legislature needed to make sure that police officers were aware of the existing tools that allow them to detain certain juvenile offenders. 

“Now, what we need to do is make sure that we have assessment tools that will help us determine what types of things are adequate for this kid to make a change in his or her life,” said Walker.

“It’s not a policy I would pursue” 

Walker told CT Examiner that GPS monitoring systems that would indicate the location of a teen, rather than simply indicating when the teen leaves their home, would be prohibitively expensive. 

“Putting an ankle bracelet on somebody does not get to what I think people are asking for. People want to know where kids are. And so I think some of the best ways we do that is to get them engaged in programming and get them into opportunities so that they have other things that occupy their time,” said Walker. 

Fishbein estimated that the cost for GPS monitoring would be around a million dollars. 

Winfield said he was not in agreement with the idea of making the transfers to adult court automatic, given that circumstances differ for every crime. He said that any of the crimes the Republicans mentioned already had the potential to be transferred to adult court.  

“Taking away discretion is not smart policy,” said Winfield. “It’s not a policy I would pursue.” 

Walker and Winfield also said they did not agree with the Republican’s proposal to commission a study to consider using the former Connecticut Juvenile Training School and group homes under the Department of Children and Families to house certain non-violent juvenile offenders. 

“I don’t think that’s what we want to be doing. We walked off that position for a reason,” said Winfield, adding that there were specific reasons that the training school was closed and that the Department of Children and Families no longer houses juvenile offenders.

Walker agreed, citing the cost and the high likelihood that children who ended up at the training school would commit more crimes. 

“[The training school] cost us $400,000 a child. I mean, we don’t have that type of money for anything in this state of the economy,” said Walker. 

“The reason why [the training school] did not work was because they had high recidivism rates for all of those kids. And that the kids that didn’t recidivate back to [the training school] ended up going into prison at a higher rate,” she added. 

Fishbein said he didn’t have any preconceived ideas about whether or not the school or group homes should be used, but he said he thought it merited a study. 

“$57 million was spent on establishing [the training school], you know, perhaps it could be used for juvenile, educational training, for employment, those kinds of things in a residential setting,” said Fishbein. 

“My community is demanding action” 

At the Friday press conference, Walker said that the money the state budgeted to support community programs to work with juveniles still has not been released to all of the organizations. She told CT Examiner on Tuesday that she was communicating with the Office of Policy and Management to get the funds distributed as quickly as possible.

Despite the disagreements, both Walker and Candelora have said that addressing juvenile offenders is a bipartisan issue. 

“I think there are people generally here that share our concerns, and we have been very open about conversations with people on what these proposals look like and see if we could garner support from the other side of the aisle,” said Candelora. 

“I think the most important thing is [that] we try not to make this a partisan thing … we’ve got to figure out how we have neglected our children and how we need to bring them back into the fold,” said Walker. 

Candelora said that many Democratic districts are also facing problems associated with juvenile crime, such as Glastonbury.  

State Rep. Jill Barry, D-Glastonbury, at the Tuesday press conference stood in support of the measures being proposed. 

“This is not a party issue to me. This is a public safety issue and I stand with my community,” she said. “My community is demanding action.”

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