HARTFORD, CT — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy Wednesday said he has introduced new legislation to once again try to get young adults between the ages of 18 to 20 into the juvenile justice system for minor crimes.
A similar attempt didn’t make it through last year’s General Assembly. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, fearful it would cost them votes in the November election, believed the legislation was soft on those convicted of crimes.
Malloy’s proposal, which he unveiled at a press conference at the Asylum Hill Boys & Girls Club, creates a new category called “young adults” for individuals between the ages of 18 to 20. When appropriate, youths who fall between these ages will be adjudicated using procedural rules common in the state’s juvenile justice system, he said.
When asked to describe the type of offenders who would benefit from the bill, Malloy said those arrested for offenses such as “public drinking, possession of alcohol, drug offenses, shoplifting.”
Malloy said the youthful offender status he is proposing does not apply to the most serious crimes, including Class A felonies and other crimes spelled out in statute. Motor vehicle crimes will also remain in adult court.
A youthful offender won’t be incarcerated for more than four years, police and court records of the charge would be automatically erased if that individual does not re-offend within four years after sentencing, and court proceedings for this population will be open to the public even though the arrest records will remain confidential.
The governor was pressed as to whether his bill would be “coddling” that age group whose members may commit such offenses.
“It isn’t about coddling,” Malloy said, who added that if he could give those who commit such crimes a “swift kick in the butt,” he’d take that over sending them to prison and having the mix into the adult offender population, which too often can be the first step on a path toward a life of crime.
Malloy said he was introducing his proposal in light of recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and incorporated suggestions submitted by prosecutors, judges, public defenders, advocates, and others during the 2016 session of the legislature.
It also contains elements of a report, written by Lael Chester and Vincent Schiraldi of the Harvard Kennedy School, which was submitted to the legislature’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee (JJPOC) with recommendations for juvenile justice reform.
Both Malloy and Schiraldi repeatedly stated that research shows that the brain of a younger person hasn’t fully developed until at least age 25, and, both said, younger people shouldn’t suffer their whole lives for “stupid mistakes” they make as teenagers.
“We know for a fact that the longer we keep young people out of the adult criminal justice system, the less likely they are to commit crimes and become incarcerated as adults,” Malloy said.
“Our prisons cannot serve as crime schools. We cannot take a one-size-fits-all attitude to corrections in which we treat a low-risk young adult the same way we treat a career criminal and expect to reduce crime at the same time,” the governor added.
The governor added that the majority of young people incarcerated are minorities and he believes current law has a “disproportionate racial impact. I am not going to shy away from that.”
New Haven State Rep. Toni Walker, who also chairs the JJPOC, stressed that decreasing the number of prison inmates also saves the state money — during a time when the budget is running more than a $1.5 billion deficit.
She and Malloy both said that their own research shows that it costs $168 a day to incarcerate a prisoner.
In 2015, Malloy was able to get the legislature to agree to a package of criminal justice reforms that got rid of mandatory minimums for possession of narcotics within 1,500 feet of schools or daycares.
Critics said the justice reforms “were going to raise the numbers in prison,” Walker said. “It did the opposite.”
The “young adults” category will be phased in over time, beginning with adjusting the age of the juvenile justice system’s jurisdiction through age 18 on July 1, 2018; through age 19 on July 1, 2019; and through age 20 on July 1, 2020.
The number of inmates between the ages of 18 to 21 in Connecticut Department of Correction custody has declined 60 percent since 2009, for a total reduction of 1,252 inmates. There are currently over 800 inmates between the ages of 18 to 21 in DOC custody.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, in attendance at the press conference, said he was a strong supporter of the proposed legislation.
“I am proud of my state when we take steps like this,” said Bronin, who added that Connecticut has taken the lead “in trying to make second chance a reality.”
Bronin added that once a young person enters the criminal justice system, “they’ll likely be back.”
Schiraldi noted that Connecticut was in the “forefront” on the initiative but that three other states — Massachusetts, Illinois, and Vermont — have been discussing similar legislation.
The governor’s legislation has been referred to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, where it is currently pending for consideration by lawmakers.
House Republican Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, remained skeptical. She said the House Republicans have not taken a caucus position on legislation regarding the treatment of youthful offenders.
“We will consider these proposed measures as the legislative process plays out,” Klarides said Wednesday.
However, “in the past we have raised concerns over the implementation of such legislation, including how different age groups might be segregated while in custody, and the definition of what constitutes a juvenile,” Klarides said.
She further stated that there could be randomness as to the treatment of how a 20-year-old is viewed under the law compared to someone charged as a 21-year-old.
Democrats still hold a slim 79-72 majority in the House and the Senate is evenly split.