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Connecticut governor wants more judges, tougher penalties for teens

Gov. Ned Lamont talking to reporters.
Gov. Ned Lamont talking to reporters.

Following a wave of high-profile juvenile crimes, Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday that the state needs stricter punishments for some youth, and he announced plans to speed up the court process for young offenders.

Lamont spoke outside the Capitol after meeting with the mother and grandmother of a teenager from Hamden who was fatally shot this week.

The Democratic governor said amid the stresses brought on by the pandemic, the state should do everything it can to provide services for troubled youth. But he added that, with some kids, "we got to be a lot stricter.”

“Ten percent of these folks are creating 90% of the problems, 90% of auto thefts, 90% of the shootings out there,” Lamont said. “And I take that very seriously. Not only are they endangering their lives, they’re endangering the lives of everybody around them.”

Lamont was flanked by the state’s public safety commissioner, James Rovella. Neither described specific plans for stricter measures involving juveniles, but Rovella said he believes as many as 200 more youths should be in custody in Connecticut.

Lamont also announced plans to speed up cases in the juvenile court system by adding an interim class of judges.

The announcement followed an investigation by Connecticut Public that found hundreds of juvenile delinquency cases stalled during the pandemic, making it harder for troubled teens to get help.

“We can start adjudicating these on a timely basis and make sure that people [who] should not be out in the street are not out in the street,” Lamont said. “And then we can keep our communities safe.”

Lamont left immediately after his remarks without taking questions. His office has yet to release more details about the governor’s plans.

Their remarks came as state police announced they are investigating the death of 14-year-old Will Vasquez. Authorities say Vasquez was dropped off at approximately 3:30 a.m. Monday at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury suffering from a gunshot wound to the back of the head. He was transferred to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford and later died of his injuries.

Discussing the incident Thursday, Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary said the community has seen an “inordinate” amount of juvenile crime, starting around 2018 and escalating during the pandemic. O’Leary, a former longtime city police officer who led the department as chief, estimated that 20 people are responsible for at least 80% of crime in the community, most of them under 18.

He called for the state to reexamine reforms made to its juvenile justice system since 2014, saying some changes may need to be “tweaked.”

In a series of reports airing this week, Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project found the state now has among the lowest juvenile incarceration rates in country, and the volume of delinquency cases filed in juvenile courts has fallen by more than half in the last decade.

At the same time, recidivism rates among juveniles have not significantly increased in the years since those reforms took effect, even among offenders at highest risk of breaking the law again, the Accountability Project investigation found.

Service providers who work with troubled youth pointed to a different set of factors driving an increase in auto theft and some other types of juvenile crime. They highlighted a slowdown in the referral process that connects juveniles who break the law with community supports.

Discussing the fatal shooting of the Hamden teen, Lamont said he heard from the boy’s mother on Thursday that her son was doing well before the pandemic took hold, but then he “started going a little stir-crazy.”

Lamont said family members told him they wish the boy had received more social supports, but also that the juvenile justice system should have been stricter with the boy, imposing longer periods of probation and tighter monitoring to help keep him out of trouble.

Rovella, the public safety commissioner, said taking a tougher approach with some juveniles can ultimately save lives.

“We need to make sure that they have the wraparound services,” he said. “They need to know that we do not want to put them in jail, but we need to slow them down.”

State records show the number of juveniles arrested in Connecticut has dropped precipitously in recent years, falling from 8,428 per year in 2016 to 3,829 in 2020.

At the same, Connecticut’s violent crime rate is near a 35-year low after falling sharply in the 1990s and continuing to decline in the 2000s, according to FBI data.

There were about 181 violent crimes reported last year for every 100,000 people who live in the state. That’s down from 282 a decade ago, and well under the violent crime rate in the United States as a whole, which stood at nearly 399 crimes per 100,000 last year.

Jim Haddadin is an editor for The Accountability Project, Connecticut Public's investigative reporting team. He was previously an investigative producer at NBC Boston, and wrote for newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas was an investigative reporter with Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project from July 2021 until August 2022.
Walter Smith Randolph is Connecticut Public’s Investigative Editor. In 2021, Walter launched The Accountability Project, CT Public’s investigative reporting initiative. Since then, the team’s reporting has led to policy changes across the state. Additionally, The Accountability Project’s work has been honored with a National Edward R. Murrow award from RTDNA, two regional Murrow awards, a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists, three regional EMMY nominations and a dozen CT SPJ awards.

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