HARTFORD – After hours of emotional debate over whether a get-tough policy or social intervention is the way to combat juvenile crime, an overwhelming 129-17 House of Representatives bipartisan majority on Thursday approved a bill that attempts to take both approaches to address crime by young people – especially car thefts.
The bill now moves on to the Senate for a final vote before the legislative session ends next week.
It provides an array of measures such as stiffer penalties for repeat car thieves, creation of a car-theft task force and greater discretion for judges to order suspects to wear a GPS monitor while awaiting trial, as well as increasing counseling and services designed to help first-offenders stay out of trouble and reduce recidivism.
Many legislators said they wished it went further on either the punishment or prevention aspects, but the lopsided approval vote was a signal of the compromise between Democrats and Republicans it took to advance the bill closer to becoming law.
“There’s a lot of things I think that would reduce crime that are not in this bill,” acknowledged State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, who is co-chair of the Judiciary Committee that helped write it and who introduced the bill Thursday. “But this is a step in the right direction.”
Many legislators told personal stories or those of their constituents about how their lives had been affected by crimes against them – and how car thefts harm victims in ways ranging from being involved in a crash caused by a fleeing suspect to having to get a car repaired or replaced after a theft.
State Rep. Pat Callahan, R-New Fairfield, said he has had cars stolen from him twice.
“It affected myself, my wife and my family – my kids no longer felt safe,” Callahan said, adding that the bill will mandate accountability “if you’ve got a situation where someone’s out stealing cars, and now they’ve done it again.”
Others objected to some of the bill’s punitive provisions, and especially to the use of GPS ankle bracelets or other devices that on a judge’s order would allow authorities to closely monitor offenders, with some saying it will disproportionately target Black and brown suspects.
“A GPS device does not stop crime,” said New London Democratic State Rep. Anthony Nolan, who is also a police officer in the city. “It does not limit the juvenile from doing any other crimes.”
Nolan, who voted in favor of the bill, said that he believes juvenile crime that spiked during the COVID pandemic is declining, and that lawmakers should take that into consideration.
“I definitely don’t think that it’s something that I would like to see in arresting kids more and putting them in lockup before we’re able to assist them in the root issues that they are dealing with,” he said.
State Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, also voted to pass the bill, and wondered why the legislature didn’t act sooner and perhaps prevent some of the crimes that have plagued the state in the last two years.
“I have heard over and over again that crime is down – that we don’t have a problem,” said Devlin, who is running for Lt. Governor alongside presumptive Republican candidate for Governor, Bob Stefanowski. “I can tell you that the people I represent certainly feel a whole lot less safe. I think the thing that has been lacking are consequences.”
Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, said the bill ignores an issue that he said he believes was a major contributor to the situation – the passage of a police-accountability law in 2020 that has demoralized many officers and prompted them to be much less aggressive in pursuing criminals.
“We have tied the hands of police officers who are trying to protect the residents of this state,” Perillo said in an impassioned speech before voting in favor of the bill.
As the debate wound down, a young legislator told of the recent choking and BB-gun shooting assault of his kindergarten-age nephew by a teenager, and offered this assessment of what the proper punishment should be for the attacker.
“There is no answer for that,” Middletown Democratic State Rep. Quentin Williams said before voting against the bill. “But by definition and by nature being punitive is not going to restore justice. It won’t.”