The overwhelming majority of 500 Connecticut residents favor prevention and rehabilitation for juveniles over punishment, according to a survey released this week by the Connecticut Justice Alliance and Youth First Initiative.

The survey was released just days before the Judiciary Committee was expected to hear testimony on two bills that would change how juveniles are handled by the criminal justice system. 

The survey, conducted by GBAO Strategies–  a research and strategy company  —  found only 24% favored a youth justice system based on punishment and incarceration, while 75% favored prevention and rehabilitation.

“Residents of this state understand that incarceration and punishment do not build safer communities,” said Christina Quaranta, executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance. “If we want a legal system that is effective, humane and serves our youth we have to focus on rehabilitation and prevention. This poll confirms that.”

Quaranta and her organization are hoping the results of the poll will spur legislators to enact youth justice reforms during this year’s legislative session which is slated to end in June.

The Alliance is supporting the legislative agenda of the Juvenile Justice Oversight and Policy Committee which is recommending raising the age of those who can be adjudicated in juvenile court from seven to 12. It also wants to prohibit suspensions and expulsions for students up to grade 12 with the only exceptions being those required by federal law.

JJPOC is also recommending prohibiting the placement of teens under the age of 18 who have not been sentenced in adult prison. Instead, the committee is asking the judicial branch to formulate policies to securely house the teens as their cases move forward.

The reforms would have to be voted on by the entire legislature. The recommendations come at a time when some lawmakers are seeking greater accountability for teens who have been charged with auto theft. The entire state has been hit with an increase in car break-ins and car thefts since the pandemic began.

The poll indicates bipartisan support for the measures. It found that 90% of Democrats, 70% of Independents and 63% of Republicans support prevention and rehabilitation.

There was also strong support for various youth justice reforms with 86% in favor of designing treatment and rehabilitation plans that include a youth’s family in the planning and services, 84% were in favor of increased spending on youth rehabilitation and 83% in favor of increased spending on social workers and health counselors, the survey said.

Most people – or 83% of those polled – were also strongly in favor of providing state and municipal incentives to invest in alternatives to youth incarceration in the communities most impacted by youth prisons. The incentives would include more money for intensive rehabilitation, education, job training, community services and programs that provide youth with opportunities to repair harm to victims and communities, the survey found.

There was also broad support for changing the system so that incarceration is not the automatic default for youth in the justice system and for requiring states to address racial inequalities in the juvenile justice system at 80% and 78% respectively, the survey found.

“For years the American people have recognized that youth prisons are dangerous, inhumane, and ineffective, and understand that more needs to be done to support alternatives to incarceration, said Liz Ryan, executive director of Youth First, which works with the Connecticut Justice Alliance on youth justice initiatives.

“The polling is clear and it’s time for more elected officials to listen and take necessary steps to make a positive change in the lives of young people,” Ryan said.

The Judiciary Committee is expected to hear public testimony today on at least two bills: one that moves forward the JJPOC’s recommendations and another that calls for GPS monitoring of juveniles caught stealing a motor vehicle. 

Republican lawmakers are joining some municipalities in calling for harsher penalties for juveniles caught stealing a motor vehicle. 

“Currently, both the police and the courts find it nearly impossible to detain or prosecute a juvenile who is caught stealing a car, even for repeat offenders,” Sen. Kevin Kelly said. “Such auto thefts are not limited to any given area; they are occurring in cities and towns across our state.”

Kelly said the bills they proposed would give law enforcement officers and courts the tools they need to reduce these crimes.

State data shows there were 200 more car thefts in 2020 than in 2019. 

Kids aren’t in school, which provides structure and time away from troubled family life, New Haven Police Chief Otoniel Reyes told Gov. Ned Lamont earlier this year. .

“Juvenile crime is spiking,” Reyes said during a discussion on the impact the pandemic has had on law enforcement. “Every week we’re dealing with robberies and stolen vehicles and we know it’s a product of the pandemic.”