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Connecticut House passes juvenile crime bill

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Rep. Steve Stafstrom, the lead sponsor of the juvenile justice bill. Over his shoulder, Rep. Robyn Porter poses questions.

After almost a year of sparring over how to respond to crimes committed by children, Republicans and Democrats in the House passed a bipartisan bill Thursday evening that attempts to hold young people accountable for running afoul of the law.

The bill passed 129-17, over the concerns of Republicans who didn’t think the bill went far enough and Democrats who worried it would disproportionately harm Black and brown children.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

“This bill is not going to fix the problem of crime here in the state of Connecticut,” said Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton.

“We have a criminal and juvenile justice system that is disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities,” said Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven. “We have Black and brown youth, because that’s who we’re talking about, that is going to jail three, four times the rate of their white counterparts.”

The measure is primarily motivated by a spate of high-profile car thefts committed earlier in the pandemic. It would shorten the time before young people first appear in court, give Superior Court judges the option to put minors on GPS monitoring if they’ve repeatedly broken the law, broaden law enforcement’s access to minors’ records and increase the time they can detain children while awaiting a detention order, and create a new larceny offense to treat car thefts uniformly, so the level of offense is no longer tied to the value of the car stolen but rather the number of cars the young person has stolen.

Car thefts increased in 2020 compared to the historic lows from 2019, as more cars were stolen in surrounding suburban communities compared to the state’s bigger cities. Preliminary data provided to the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee last month indicates a decrease in stolen cars in 2021, lending support to the theory that the spike during the pandemic’s first year was due to widespread societal disruptions, including school closures and a pause on after-school programming.

Legislators from both parties have held multiple press conferences on car thefts over the past year. On Tuesday, Gov. Ned Lamont, who is running for reelection this November, held a press conference of his own, throwing his support behind the bipartisan bill.

Not to be outdone, Republicans held a press conference Wednesday morning saying that while they support the bill, it doesn’t go far enough to address the root causes of crime.

Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said the compromise measure doesn’t address truancy, increase mentorship opportunities for young people or present any workforce development opportunities.

“Justice reform and opportunity go hand in hand,” Kelly said. “A better economy would certainly do wonders for giving people an alternative to crime.”

While Kelly talked about dealing with crime holistically by addressing issues like housing and job training, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, faulted the legislation for not giving judges more discretion to put children in the adult court system and for not appropriately criminalizing the theft of a car. Without harsher consequences, Candelora said, these types of crimes will continue.

“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 making our young adults, they are turning them into criminals, and they’re becoming adult criminals down the road,” said Candelora.

Republicans all voted in favor of the bill, and Candelora said Wednesday before the vote that his caucus “dragged the Democrats and the governor to the table.”

Republicans kicked off last summer by calling for a special session to address crimes committed by minors after a 17-year-old driving a stolen vehicle struck and killed a jogger in New Britain. Democrats responded by holding a press conference emphasizing data showing that car thefts reached historic lows in 2019.

“Getting into the weeds of criminal justice policy and crime statistics does not make good headlines,” said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, pointing out that FBI data show that Connecticut has the fourth-lowest violent crime rate in the country. “I don’t think we are in a crime crisis.”

Stafstrom emphasized the bipartisan nature of the bill while noting that it does not signal a massive sea change for how Connecticut deals with children who run afoul of the law.

“I wouldn’t call these massive reforms,” he said. “These are sensible tweaks. They do not blow up our juvenile justice system.”

A version of the bill passed out of the Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan vote of 35-4, with several Democrats voting no.

Democrats expressed concern over the bill’s potential impact on Black and brown children, as the criminal legal system disproportionately impacts minorities at every level. Research also indicates that Black children are incarcerated at higher rates than white youth.

“The goal here is to keep kids out of prison,” Stafstrom said. “We as a state have done a good job of recognizing that it is in the state’s best interest to keep kids out of detention, out of prison, all at reasonable cost.”

Stafstrom said the bill deals strictly with the judiciary elements of the issue, but his legislative peers in the Appropriations Committee have assured him there will be funding for wraparound, holistic services for troubled youth in the budget packet legislators will vote on in the coming days.

Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Easton, said she remained worried about the bill’s impact on Black and brown children “who will be tagged as criminals to their communities, to their peers, because we failed to provide upstream prevention services before this moment.”

Tracking minors via GPS monitoring also emerged as a concern among Democrats.

“A GPS device does not stop crime. It does not limit the juvenile from doing any other crimes,” said Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London. “I think that we need to revisit a different way to take care of the issues that are going on.”

Others pushed back on the idea that crime was a new issue. Referencing data showing that car thefts have spread away from the state’s cities and into surrounding suburban towns, Porter said crime and gun violence has been an issue in her home community for generations.

“This is something that I grew up with, and I’m over 50 years old. And I can say my mom grew up with it, and she’s over 70 years old. And God rest my grandmother’s soul, she lived to be 91, she grew up with it,” Porter said. “Crime is not going to go away, but what is disturbing is that it only matters when it hits a certain demographic. I’ve been living with this my entire life.”

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