Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Vote tally board (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The House handily passed a bill hours before the close of session Wednesday that would allow juveniles charged with car theft to seek services rather than face adult prosecution.

SB 504 gives juveniles the opportunity to go into treatment and have the supervision of a probation officer for a specific amount of time rather than go through the juvenile or adult court system.

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

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The statewide increase in car thefts was hotly contested at the start of the session, with at least one legislator proposing a bill that would have automatically transferred juveniles charged with car theft to adult court. Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said during a public hearing the teens were a danger to the public and themselves.

But juvenile justice advocates were concerned that more teens would be placed in adult prison as the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee was recommending removing juveniles from both Manson Youth Institution and York Correctional Institution.

A compromise was struck in early May to allow juveniles to apply for a suspension of delinquency proceedings for up to six months to participate in services to deal with the problems or behaviors leading the teens to commit the offense.

The Senate passed the bill on May 9.

Under the bill, the juvenile or his representative would have to apply to the program and agree to all 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 whether the juvenile has successfully completed the program and the case can be dismissed. The court will monitor progress during the six-month period. Juveniles who have been convicted of more serious offenses will not be eligible to participate.

The parents or guardians of the juvenile will be required to pay the cost of treatment and other services if the juvenile is accepted into the program. Parents or juveniles who are indigent will be allowed to enter the program. Juveniles will not be automatically entered into the program and can undergo regular juvenile prosecution by not applying.

Most representatives applauded the bill as a way to stem the uptick in car thefts.

“I’m glad a bill came forward that actually addresses the issue,” said Rep. Larry Butler, D-Waterbury, whose city has been pummeled with an increase in car thefts.

The entire country has seen an increase in car thefts, said Judiciary Committee Co-Chairman Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport.

“This is intended to address the issue towns in our state, particularly in the inner-ring suburbs, where they are seeing an uptick in the number of car thefts committed with some of those committed by juveniles,” Stafstrom said. “Nationally, there has been an uptick in car thefts as folks with key fobs leave them in the car. Unfortunately juveniles use that as a crime of opportunity.”

Stafstrom viewed the bill as a way to enhance juvenile justice reforms the legislature has passed in recent years. “It’s to make sure those juveniles who are wrapped up in the system as a result of a car theft can get the services they need and an opportunity to right themselves,” Stafstrom said.

But Rep. J.P. Sredzinski, R-Monroe, was supportive of sending juveniles charged with car theft to adult court automatically.

“We have a serious problem in the state where gangs and other criminals are using our young people to steal cars,” Sredzinski said, before voting in favor of the bill.

Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, whose town also has seen a rise in car thefts, expressed her gratitude for the bill.

“They will not get off scot-free,” she said. “They will be directed by a judge into a program that will change their behavior.”