Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Sen. Martin Looney and Sen. Gary Winfield wait on the amendment to be filed. (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — With little debate and lengthy accolades for the authors of the proposed legislation, the Senate passed an amended bill late Thursday afternoon that would allow juveniles charged with car theft to seek services rather than face adult prosecution.

“This is in response to a very serious issue in the state with juveniles,” Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, told his colleagues in the minutes before vote took place.

CLICK TO VOTE ON SB 504: An Act Concerning Youthful Offenders, Treatment And Community Based Solutions

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The bill, SB 504, diverts children charged with theft or misuse of a vehicle to treatment, which if successfully completed could lead to suspension of prosecution of the criminal case.

Legislators had been wrestling with a handful of bills that ranged from sending repeat juvenile offenders directly to adult court to providing services since February. The bills were sparked by a rapid increase in the number of stolen cars throughout the state in the past three years.

Police say the uptick is traced to juveniles who have no fear of juvenile proceedings. Juvenile justice advocates opposed sending more kids into the adult court system — and possibly adult prisons. Several of the car theft cases have ended in tragedy, including the recent death of a 17-year-old from Hartford who was thrown from a stolen car when it crashed minutes after being chased by Madison police.

Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, asked for a review of car theft statistics after a public hearing on HB 7332, which would have allowed courts to automatically transfer juveniles charged with committing car theft to adult court based on their criminal history. That bill will not be brought up this session, Winfield said.

The results of the data gathered by Ken Barone, project manager at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University, showed car thefts decreased in cities including Bridgeport, Hartford, New Britain, and New Haven by more than 38 percent from 2008 to 2017.

But during the same period, car thefts rose by close to 21 percent in the state’s suburbs with populations up to 25,000.

The only “outlier” was the city of Waterbury, which saw a 91 percent increase in car thefts from 2008 to 2017. Waterbury had the fewest number of car thefts out of any large city in Connecticut 10 years ago, Barone said.

“While we’re proud of a declining crime rate, we have an escalating rate of car thefts,” said Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, one of several senators who spoke in favor of the amended bill. “This underlying bill before us today will address that.”

Under the newly amended bill, juveniles charged with car theft can apply for a suspension of delinquency proceedings for up to six months to participate in services to deal with the problems or behaviors that are driving the teens to commit the offense.

The juvenile, or his representative, would have to apply to the program and agree to all of the court-ordered conditions, including screening for services and supervision by a juvenile probation officer for six months.

At the end of the period, the probation officer would report to the court if the juvenile has successfully completed the program and the case could be dismissed. The court will monitor progress during the six-month period. Juveniles who have been convicted of serious offenses will not be eligible to participate.

The parents or guardians of the juvenile will be required to pay for the cost of treatment and other services if the juvenile is accepted into the program. The court will not charge parents who are considered indigent. Juveniles will not be entered into the program automatically and they can seek regular juvenile prosecution by not applying.

Under the amended version of the bill, the Judicial Branch will be required to compile demographic information on the suspended delinquency cases including treatment and service outcomes.

The bill creates a path for legislators and police to figure out why teens are stealing cars and what to do about it, said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who also supported the proposed legislation.

“Is it joyriding? Is it gangs? Is it boredom?” Kissel said. “We’re trying to drill down deep and get at the cause,” he added.

The bill, originally crafted by Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, gained support from both sides of the aisle as stakeholders including prosecutors and juvenile justice advocates met several times to draft a plan that would address the issue without putting more kids into the court system, Kissel said.

“The idea is to nip these incidents in the bud and turn these juveniles around, so they never enter the system,” Kissel said. “I want to break the cycle of recidivism.”