Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo
Waterbury Police Chief Fernando Spagnolo (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — Law enforcement officials in many towns across the state claim they are being hit by a wave of auto thefts.

And those same police officials believe a small part of the criminal population is responsible — repeat juvenile offenders.

On Tuesday House Bill 7332, which would require the automatic transfer of a juvenile charged with the theft of a motor vehicle to adult court if the juvenile has at least two prior felony convictions, received hours of testimony from supporters and critics.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 HB 7332: An Act Concerning Public Safety And The Welfare Of Repeat Juvenile Offenders And Their Victims

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Police chiefs and other law enforcement officials packed the Public Safety and Security Committee to testify in favor of the legislation. Public defenders and other critics of the bill argued that the state’s judges already have the authority to transfer juveniles to adult court at their discretion.

Those pushing for the bill claim that Connecticut’s juvenile justice reforms have created a new problem — that juveniles know they will only receive a slap on the wrist if they are caught stealing a car.

Waterbury Police Chief Fernando Spagnolo told the committee: “We had 972 cars stolen in Waterbury in 2018, the majority were stolen by juveniles.”

Spagnolo said 52 juveniles were arrested for car theft and related charges in Waterbury last year and that six of them were repeat offenders. “They were arrested on an average of 10 times each and charged in total with 75 crimes,” Spagnolo said.

“It’s a big problem in Waterbury,” Spagnolo said. “It’s a big problem in the state.”

Spagnolo and others testifying in favor of the legislation also said the cars are often being driven at high speeds by unlicensed, unskilled drivers — making the issue a public safety a concern as well.

While advocating for the tougher legislation, Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, was careful in how she constructed her argument.

She said that juvenile justice legislation passed previously has been a “positive step in dealing with youthful offenders.”

The legislation proposed now, she said, was an attempt to “perfect” the legislation and go after an “extremely targeted group of repeat juvenile offenders whose habitual crimes have escalated to a serious safety risk not only to themselves but the general public as well.”

She said the juveniles have turned stealing cars into a game.

“There’s lots of bragging rights going on,” Hartley said. “It becomes a competition. Someone steals a Toyota, the next day someone steals a BMW, then a Mercedes. It becomes a sport.”

Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, said he’s convinced stronger legislation is needed.

“It’s completely out of control,” Reyes said. “Normally I find myself on the other side trying to give second, third, and fourth choices to these juveniles. But now I’m leaning toward the law is too lenient.”

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said she was well aware of the issue, stating she knows the town of Hebron even held a special meeting on the matter a few nights ago.

“This (juvenile stealing cars) is actually happening across the state in a variety of communities,” Osten said.

The topic of stolen cars and thefts of goods from inside vehicles has dominated the conversations at many recent meetings of Boards of Police Commissioners in shoreline towns.

Branford Police Chief Kevin Halloran has been particularly outspoken on the issue, stating repeatedly that there are juveniles who don’t fear any consequences for their actions.

Halloran said the typical way the crime is committed in Branford is a group of young people come to a neighborhood together and begin looking for unlocked cars — first to see if there’s anything of value to steal, and second to steal a car and to take it “on a joy ride.”

Christina Quaranta of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance warned lawmakers that car thefts are not a Connecticut-only phenomenon.

“For some reason, juvenile car thefts have spiked in communities and states across the country over the past three years,” Quaranta said in written testimony. “This is not a phenomenon unique to Connecticut or as a result of change in Connecticut law.”

She said data from the Judicial Branch Court Support Services Division indicates that juvenile arrests for car theft are trending downward statewide.

“During the second quarter of 2018, there were 212 arrests of juveniles relating to auto theft. By the fourth quarter of 2018 those numbers were down to 166 arrests. The goal is always for that number to be zero, but the problem appears to be de-escalating,” she said.

Susan Hamilton, director of the Delinquency Defense and Child Protection Office of the Chief Public Defender, said the courts can already transfer juveniles to adult court.

“Under existing law, these larceny cases are already eligible for discretionary transfer to the adult court following a transfer hearing in the juvenile court,” Hamilton said in written testimony.

State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan added that while she understands the problem law enforcement is facing, more thought needs to be put into where the juveniles wind up being incarcerated.

“There is a dearth of evidence that transferring them to the adult system will solve the problem,” Eagan said. “The adult criminal system is not equipped to meet the needs of juvenile offenders.”

She said youth in juvenile jails have special education and mental health programs that adult prisons do not offer.

Connecticut’s top prosecutor is supporting the legislation.

In written testimony, the Division of Criminal Justice that is headed by Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said it’s “no secret that in many cases a young person who steals a car is soon back on the streets having faced no immediate or meaningful sanctions for their crimes.”

Kane blamed “Raise the Age” legislation for the increase.

“While much good has come from the “raise the age” legislation enacted in recent years, it also has become obvious that some fine-tuning is in order to address the very serious threat posed by the very small number of serious repeat juvenile offenders,” Kane’s statement said in written testimony.

Kane also suggested that the committee not limit its language.

“Motor vehicle thefts may be the issue of the day this year; next year it well could be armed robberies, sexual assaults, or some other violent felony,” Kane said.