HARTFORD – The State Capitol press conferences were held back-to-back, but the views of Democrats and Republicans on the level of juvenile crime in Connecticut and how to deal with it were worlds apart.
“I think this is a systemic problem,” Republican State Rep. Vincent Candelora of North Branford told reporters. “All you have to do is go on Facebook or walk out your front door and talk to your neighbors.”
Minutes later, East Hartford Democrat State Rep. Jason Rojas gave the same group a completely different take.
“It doesn’t happen to the vast majority of people in our state,” he said of the car thefts and other associated offenses that are the main target of proposed legislation. “And then there’s the way it appears on social media, which is in our faces every day, which I think gives people the perception that crime is completely out of control when it’s not.”
The wildly contrasting perspectives given earlier this week came as the long-awaited debate over legislation designed to deal with the issue remained stalled with only days left in the General Assembly session that ends next Wednesday.
The bill, which received bipartisan support to advance it out of the Judiciary Committee, would implement a series of initiatives to impose stricter penalties and monitoring of juvenile offenders while also providing more mental health and behavioral services to try to keep them from committing crimes in the first place.
But as the legislation inches toward consideration of the full General Assembly, Republicans want to add provisions to make it even tougher and at the same time increase the level of those prevention programs.
“People want to feel safe, and while this is a start, by no means will it deliver on that,” Republican State Sen. Kevin Kelly of Stratford said at the first press conference. “We need a holistic approach. What is before us on the agenda is treating symptoms, but it’s not going to go to the causes.”
Yes it will, countered Bridgeport Democrat State Rep. Steven Stafstrom a few minutes later.
“It is a compromise proposal that makes responsible tweaks to our criminal justice statutes and our juvenile justice statutes,” he said. “I don’t think we are in a crisis. We remain one of the absolute safest states in the country and I think being smart on crime has helped us get there.”
Hardly, said Candelora – the Democrats’ approach has only worsened the problem.
“What the Democrats have constructed in the state of Connecticut by stripping out all the consequences and not providing appropriate services for our youth, they are turning them into criminals and they are becoming adult criminals down the road,” he said.
The dueling Wednesday press conferences came a day after Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, surrounded by uniformed officers and state police troopers, held one of his own to announce his support for the current bill outside the East Hartford police department.
How the state handles crime is expected to be one of the major topics of contention in this fall’s statewide elections, where Lamont will likely be again challenged by Republican Bob Stefanowski.
“I’m not looking to put kids in adult prison,” Lamont said. “A crime bill is more than about just law enforcement. And these last two years of COVID hell has been really tough, especially on our young people.”
Another wrinkle in the debate is whether the jump in juvenile crime that began after the pandemic hit in 2020 is receding, as some statistics suggest.
Again, it depends which side you’re on.
“We had a spike in crime early in the pandemic which has leveled off and started to fall,” said Stafstrom, adding that the legislature should address the situation with “a scalpel not a saw.”
“Police aren’t arresting people for car thefts because they can’t keep up with the number of thefts, so naturally that’s going to go down,” countered Candelora. “It’s not a time to spike the football and claim victory, which I think is the narrative the governor yesterday wanted to say.”
Thursday, Democratic House Speaker Matt Ritter of Hartford was asked when the proposed bill would be brought to a debate on the floor of the House, where his party controls the agenda.
Saying he hoped it would happen later Thursday, Ritter cautioned that there were members of both parties who still were seeking changes to it.
“When you make a compromise, you anger people on both sides, which is the ultimate compromise,” he said. “But then to put that in action – it gets a little tricky.”