Dozens of advocates donned orange t-shirts and descended on the state Capitol today, arguing against Connecticut’s practice of sending 16 and 17-year olds to adult courts and adult prisons. But one Republican said lawmakers should focus on reducing recidivism for everyone, not just youths.State Rep. Toni Walker (D-New Haven) is the chief proponent of a bill to raise the age of youths who can be tried as juveniles.

Instead of being tried and sentenced as adults, 16 and 17-year olds should have access to all of the counseling and other services available to youths, said Dr. Donna Bishop, a recidivism expert at Northeastern University. “When we put youths in the adult system, we put them in situations where they’re housed together with much more seasoned adult offenders, where they are much more likely to be victimized and exploited, where they are much more likely to have opportunities to learn how to commit crimes from their fellow, more serious offenders,” Bishop said. Teenagers committing violent felonies would still be referred to adult court under the new law, Walker said. The point is to address teenagers who commit “silly mistakes,” she said.But the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, state Rep. Robert Farr of West Hartford, said Connecticut already revised its youthful offender statutes last year, making any 16 or 17-year old eligible for such status. Youthful offenders can have their records expunged, Farr said, and can have their cases heard in closed hearing rooms, just like in juvenile court.Though advocates severely criticized Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire as lacking any rehabilitative services, Farr defended the prison. Connecticut’s sentencing reform efforts- such as clear benchmarks for parole, beefed up parole staff and lower penalties for crack cocaine- are meant to target recidivism across the board, Farr said. What today’s advocates want is “simplistic,” he said.“We don’t want [recidivism] to be the case for everybody, not just youths,” he said.