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Hearing on criminal justice bills crystallizes a divide between the parties

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, sponsored the Senate Republicans' bill that members of the Judiciary Committee heard testimony on on Monday.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, sponsored the Senate Republicans' bill that members of the Judiciary Committee heard testimony on on Monday.

About three hours into a public hearing hosted by the Judiciary Committee on Monday, Ranking Member Rep. Craig Fishbein asked an attorney a hypothetical question: What is the benefit of keeping a 13-year-old, charged with murder, in the juvenile justice system, as opposed to transferring their case to adult court?

The question was in reference to a bill that would automatically transfer a 13-year old’s criminal case to adult court if they were charged with certain violent crimes. Fishbein’s question asked several points that the bill tries to answer: How should the state, and the courts, respond when a young child is charged with a serious crime? And, do certain criminal charges warrant putting a young teenager in adult prison, even if they’re being held pretrial, without having been convicted of a crime?

Marisa Mascolo Halm, the director of the Youth Justice Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, said that keeping the hypothetical young teen in the juvenile system would give them access to programs and services that are appropriate for their age and spare them from the long-term isolation that is often the experience of young people incarcerated in Manson Youth Institution, which houses children whose cases have been transferred to adult court or youths up to age 21.

“This is a young person at the age of 13 that has the propensity to rehabilitate, and there are no programs that I’m aware of in the adult system that are successful at doing that,” said Halm.

“I don’t know that a juvenile, [age] 13, who’s been convicted of 20 different crimes, and then they’re convicted of murder, is rehabilitatable,” said Fishbein, R-Wallingford. “So, how do I explain that to my constituents?”

The exchange, captured during a long public hearing on a dozen criminal justice bills, crystallized the divide between Republicans and advocates and their Democratic allies, as public officials attempt to respond, in an election year, to an increase in homicides and car thefts — and an overall decrease in violent crime — in 2020.

“We have to strike a balance between doing what’s best for the juvenile and also public safety and these victims,” said Rep. Greg Howard, a Republican representative and a Stonington police officer.

Monday’s public hearing followed last summer’s rash of vehicle thefts, when Republicans attacked Democrats for years of what they deemed as soft-on-crime policies that failed to hold young people accountablewho ran afoul of the law. Democrats pushed back, pointing out that violent crime in Connecticut was at a record low and that datashow the juvenile justice reforms of years past are working.

Almost 230 people were signed up to testify at Monday’s hearing. They offered their thoughts on a slew of bills that spanned the ideological spectrumof how to respond to juvenile crime and gun violence.

Advocates like Halm argued that putting young people in adult prison does not help them and makes them more likely to commit future crimes. Halm pointed out that many young people who wind up incarcerated often have experienced trauma or were involved in the foster care system before they were arrested. Those in the juvenile system have access to more trauma-informed programming and can meet regularly with a mental health professional, she said.

“Our adult system is simply unequipped to handle these young people,” said Halm.

Others pointed out the racial disparities in the state’s youth adult prison. Of the 337 children and young adults at Manson Youth Institution on March 1, 186 were Black and 101 were Hispanic. Sarah Eagan, the state’s Child Advocate, called that disparity “a foundational and critical problem in our justice system that remains unresolved.”

Also unresolved, Eagan said, is the aftermath of the state’s response to the U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found that the conditions of confinement at Manson violated children’s constitutional rights.

“No resolution to these findings has yet been determined,” said Eagan.

Advocates noted data showing that car thefts were at a record low in 2019, despite an uptick in 2020 and 2021. They rejected the politics of responding to perceived rising crime with punitive policies, as criminal convictions can have life-altering consequences.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Lubbie Harper Jr., the chair of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparity in the Criminal Justice System, said in his written testimony that COVID-19 has harmed the well-being and mental health of communities, and children, across the state.

“Policymakers should focus on continuing to address the impact of COVID-19 on youth and children involved in criminal activity,” Harper said. “Advocating for punitive policy in response to a highly sensationalized narrative threatens to return the state to a ‘tough on crime’ mentality that is rooted in fear and bias and disproportionately impacts Black and brown members of our communities.”

The Judiciary Committee also heard public testimony on a bill proposed by Senate Republicans that would give judges more time to review cases to determine whether a young person should be detained after their arrest, expedite court hearings in an attempt to more quickly connect children with services and allow 14-year olds’ cases to automatically transfer to the adult court if they are charged with certain crimes.

Sen. John A Kissel, R-Enfield and ranking senator on the Judiciary Committee, said the proposal is a response to a justice system that has “gone too far to the left.” He said the bill would serve as a deterrent for young people who break the law.

“Ignoring the problem of juvenile crime will not make it go away,” he said.

Fishbein was more direct in his exchange with Halm.

“I understand that some people don’t want any kids to go to jail no matter what,” Fishbein said. “But, at some point, somebody’s got to say, ‘What you’re doing is wrong,’ and do something about it.”

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