Christine Stuart photo
Sen. Eric Coleman, Sen. Paul Doyle, and Rep. Bruce Morris listen to the debate in the Judiciary Committee (Christine Stuart photo)

The Judiciary Committee approved two bills this week in an effort to reform the juvenile justice system.

On Wednesday, the committee voted 41-4 in favor of a wide-ranging juvenile justice reform bill that has rehabilitation of young people, instead of jailing them, as its primary goal.

The bill, H.B. 5642, would implement the recommendations of the Juvenile Justice Policy Oversight Committee.

The stated goals of the legislation are “to reduce incarceration rates of children, to increase diversion of children from the juvenile justice system, to reduce education barriers faced by children in or exiting the juvenile system, to reduce recidivism, to address mental behavioral health issues of children.”

The bill includes steps toward closing the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown, which is run by the Department of Children and Families. DCF Commissioner Joette Katz warned that the bill needs to be revised because it includes nine new reporting requirements for her agency at a time when there are fewer resources based on budget constraints.

The committee’s vote Wednesday came two days after it voted 22-17, mostly along party lines and over Republican concerns, to approve another bill that would increase the age at which juvenile offenders are treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

That bill, S.B. 18, also reforms the bail system and was the governor’s initiative to make Connecticut the first state in the nation to raise the age at which people are tried as adults to 21 in most cases. The bill would allow 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds to have their cases heard within the juvenile justice system, as opposed to adult court.

Among other things, this new “young adult” designation in the court system would mean 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds’ cases generally would be closed to public based on their “youthful offender” status from the time of their arrest. This means they will be able to keep their name out of the news media, be subject to no more than four years of incarceration, and have their records erased four years after their conviction as long as they complete their sentence.

Each bill will still need to be approved by both the House and Senate before getting a chance to head to the governor’s desk for his signature.

During debate about H.B. 5642 on Wednesday, Judiciary Committee Co-Chairman William Tong, D-Stamford, said that “this legislation hopefully will help us toward a more effective juvenile justice system. It keeps us away from mass incarceration. It helps us find a way for young people to be rehabilitated and make contributions.”

Committee members’ main concern about H.B. 5642 was whether it would pass on an unfunded mandate to Connecticut municipalities where the juveniles would be receiving services.

Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury, voted against S.B. 18 but in favor of H.B. 5642.

“I am left shaking my head,” McLachlan said, about how the committee could expect towns and cities or their agencies to take over the financial burden of rehabilitating juvenile offenders.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said the “goals of the legislation are extraordinary laudable,” but he also split his votes on the two bills, voting against S.B. 18 and in favor of H.B. 5642 Wednesday.

“There are an awful lot of changes this bill [H.B. 5642] calls for and considering the financial constraints” that state and local officials are living with currently, Kissel said he is worried about the ramifications.

McLachlan, Kissel, and other committee members also cited testimony from the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education from the March 23 public hearing on H.B. 5642 before the Judiciary Committee. CABE submitted a position statement regarding the state passing on the cost of juvenile justice reform to towns.

CABE, in its statement, said it was concerned that the legislation requires the Connecticut Department of Education to “develop and implement a plan for school-based diversion initiatives . . .  to be introduced into schools and school districts.”

CABE’s statement continued: “While CABE is supportive of the efforts to reduce juvenile justice involvement and provide support to those students, we urge you to examine these specific provisions carefully and avoid placing unworkable provisions on school districts.”

Other departments involved with juveniles, including the state Department of Education, expressed the same concerns at the Judiciary Committee public hearing.

Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who voted in favor of the legislation, said language has been revised in the bill, and will continue to be revised, as it moves forward through the General Assembly.

Walker and others in favor of the bill repeatedly said the legislation was a “work in progress” and that more conversations will take place with all parties responsible for juvenile rehabilitation in the state.

“We can’t pour money down a well,” Walker said. “We are not talking about new funding for this legislation. Instead, we have to see which of the current programs in place are working and divert funds away from the ones that aren’t.”