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Republicans say crime is out of control. Democrats say it’s not. What do the data show?

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, answers a reporter’s question. Boards behind showed that shots fired have more than doubled from 2019 in New Haven and that car thefts increased by 42.5 percent between 2019 and 2020 in Connecticut.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, answers a reporter’s question. Boards behind showed that shots fired have more than doubled from 2019 in New Haven and that car thefts increased by 42.5 percent between 2019 and 2020 in Connecticut.

With sensational stories about carjackings dominating headlines and nightly news coverage, Gov. Ned Lamont sought last week to assuage public fears that crime is running rampant across Connecticut.

“The data shows that we are one of the safest states in the country,” he told reporters on Oct. 13. “We’re one of the lowest levels of violent crime in the country.”

That isn’t the picture that Senate Republicans painted a few hours later, when they held a press conference presenting a different set of data.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, ticked off the statistics on the boards behind him — 2021 figures, to date, he compiled from city police department reports and compared to the previous year. A61% increase in murders in Hartford. A 37.5% increase in New Haven. And in Waterbury, a 28.6% uptick in homicides and 23% increase in car thefts.

To some degree, the dramatic percentage increases in murders Kelly cited are explained by the fact that even small upticks among small numbers can register large percentage changes. But Republicans still see cause for concern in the data.

“We’re having and experiencing more crime and more violent crime,” Kelly said. “This is the true emergency that I think is facing Connecticut.”

This week’s public comments were the latest round in an ongoing debate about crime rates in Connecticut, whether those rates warrant some kind of legislative response and, if so, what (and when) that response should be. Republicans would prefer to convene a special legislative session, but in a Zoom press conference held in response to the Senate Republicans’ proposals, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and chair of the Judiciary Committee, reiterated that motor vehicle thefts were at historic lows in Connecticut in 2019, and that state policies have led to a reduction, not a surge, in crime in recent years.

That doesn’t mean the message is an easy sell to voters, he said, especially given the frequency in which dramatic stories about individual crimes show up in the media.

“Data is not sexy,” Winfield said. “But I think my job is to not just be responsive to the fact that people are feeling something but be responsive to the facts.”

But what do the data actually show?

That both parties are right.

Data recently released by the FBI back up Kelly’s claim that murders and car thefts rose in 2020. Homicides increased — from 77 in 2019 to 108 in 2020 — as they did across the country, but they comprise such a small percentage of overall violent crime that Connecticut’s violent crime rate remained low. Connecticut had the fourth-lowest number of violent crimes of any state in the U.S. Overall, violent crime in Connecticut decreased in 2020; nationally, it increased by about 4.5%.

The report did, however, show a marked increase in auto thefts and property crime overall. Car thefts rose across the country during 2020 but not as much as they did in Connecticut. They rose by around 11% nationally and by about 40% in Connecticut.

Kelly’s numbers on murders and cart thefts were accurate, too, but the spikes sounded larger than they are.

Small numbers can have large percentage increases. The 61% percent increase in murder in Hartford referred to an increase from 18 such cases to 29. Similarly, the 37.5% increase in New Haven murders starts from a baseline of 16 murders last year to 22 so far. And the 28.6% increase in murders in Waterbury is an increase from 7 to 9; the 23% increase in car thefts reflects an increase from 391 cases to 481.

Republicans are focused on what the data say about Connecticut, not how Connecticut stacks up to other states.

“It calls for a response. We shouldn’t be playing this numbers game, ‘Well, I think it went down, or it went up,'” Kelly said after Senate Republicans released their own response for dealing with crime, a three-part plan focusing on reforms to the juvenile and adult justice systems, creating job opportunities and making changes to Section 8 housing and rolling back what they see as overreaches in a landmark police accountability bill passed in the summer following the murder of George Floyd.

The Senate Republicans’ plan proposes around-the-clock GPS monitoring of young people arrested for violent crimes or repeat offenses while they are awaiting trial for a prior charge. It lowers the age at which cases can be transferred to the adult system, allowing 14-year-olds to be tried in adult court, and expands the list of crimes that result in an automatic transfer to the adult system. It also suggests revising a ban on consent searches — which state data show Black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be subjected to, and rarely yield contraband — to permit them in certain situations.

Not all of the Republicans’ plan was focused on punishing those who commit crimes — they also suggested making funding available for community programs that address youth trauma, truancy and mentorship needs, and broadening young people’s professional pathways so they’re made aware of the benefits of going to trade school and allowing those schools to participate in certain need-based scholarship funds.

But the parts that do focus on punishment run the risk of exacerbating existing racial disparities in the state’s justice system, said Iliana Pujols, the policy director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance, given that people of color are already overrepresented in Connecticut’s correctional system.

A report released by The Sentencing Project over the summer found that Black youths in Connecticut are more than 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. And another report published by The Sentencing Project this week found that Connecticut had the fourth-highest disparity between Black and white prisoners in its prison system of all U.S. states.

“These are kids of color, and I think one of the things that’s very obvious is a lot of the Republican press conferences have lacked diversity,” Pujols said. “There’s really nobody with them that’s representing the communities they’re talking about.”

Kelly said the goal of the Republican proposals is to reduce crime by addressing its root causes, which includes improving Connecticut’s economy so it doesn’t just benefit the wealthy. It isn’t just to lock people up.

“That’s why we focus so much on the prevention and opportunity, is that so that we don’t have more individuals being confined, but less,” he said. “We’re not looking to just arrest people and put them in jail; we’re looking to actually reduce that and to make sure they have the proper supports and services.”

Winfield was unwilling to say whether there is a growing coalition of suburban Democrats who believe they need to respond to crime.

"This is a policy and a political issue, and the solution put forward is both, as well," he said. As Republicans call these press conferences on crime, the fear of which is frequently reinforced in media reports, Democrats' constituents could start to think Democrats need to respond to the problem framed by Republicans, that they're in danger, as Kelly said, "even just cooking dinner in your kitchen"

“It's hard to say to a constituent, 'Well, the data says that’s not going to happen,'" Winfield said. "So, the easier thing to do, or the more immediate thing to get people off your back, is to respond in the way they want you to respond, which may be to respond in ways that might be more punitive.”

But he cautioned against repeating the sins of decades past, when punitive policies resulted in an overfilled prison system and created entire communities — often under-resourced and populated by Black or brown residents — filled with citizens unable to get a fair shot at housing or employment because of the scarlet letter of a criminal record.

"I don't think the policies that we have had in the past are smart policies, and what I see us doing here, whether it's by intention or not, is walking ourselves back to that place," Winfield said, referring to policies like the 1994 Crime Bill, a sweeping law that still hurts communities of color. “We’re responding out of emotion and not really getting a clear picture, and I think that’s how you pass laws you might not want to pass, that lead to increases in incarceration.”

But at the same time, he acknowledged that sobering statistics and national context on crime rates can be little solace for survivors of crime.

"It's a real experience for somebody."

CT Mirror Reporter Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story. 

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