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

Waterbury police Chief Fernando Spagnolo has been talking to anyone who will listen about the cycle of juvenile car theft for at least three years, and it’s only gotten worse. From Jan. 1 to July 22, there were 385 car thefts in the city. During the same period in 2020, there were 280.

Spagnolo said the city has 50 kids who regularly engaged in car thefts and other offenses, with about 15 escalating to hand gun arrests and other serious charges. On average, that top 15 started stealing cars at 13. Three are in prison for murder or conspiracy to commit murder, Spagnolo said.

“The outcomes for these kids are horrific,” Spagnolo said. “These kids are turning 18 and either going directly into adult incarceration or dying.”

New Britain Police Chief Christopher Chute had to announce the unthinkable last month as he spoke of the tragic death of a jogger killed by a 17-year-old who had lost control of the stolen car he was driving.

“He had been arrested in New Britain 13 times before,” Chute said of the teen. “There is no system to check if he’s been arrested by other departments.”

As a working group of legislators is considering calls for stiffer penalties for juveniles caught in stolen vehicles following a spike in car thefts and car break-ins during the pandemic, Chute is calling for something different.

It’s not about the stolen cars, Chute said. 

“I’m not saying we need to lock kids up,” Chute explained. “The problem is, there are no services for them. The juvenile justice system has failed them and has failed the public. This is a small portion of juveniles who are repeat offenders. The majority are done after one incident. The ones who see in the news I can guarantee you that kid has had multiple arrests. Where are the services?”

Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, concedes that the legislature has not funded some of the related supports and services for youth. But Stafstrom and other key Democratic legislative leaders are resisting calls to change laws to give police and prosecutors greater latitude to send more kids to prison for stolen vehicles.

“Nobody is condoning a juvenile who steals a car,” Stafstrom said. “What we’re looking at is providing services, counseling and other supports sooner rather than later. How do we make sure a juvenile is getting the right support in the early stages?”

Car thefts and break-ins rose in 2020 during the pandemic, but the crimes still aren’t at the level they were in 2018, Chute said. Nationally there has been a rise in car thefts during the pandemic, Stafstrom said.

The legislature passed a law in 2019 requiring the judicial branch to create a program for first-time car theft offenders that would suspend prosecution while the juvenile received services. According to the judicial branch, three months after completing the program, 25, or 89%, had no arrests and three were arrested. Six months after completing the program, 19 had no arrests and four were re-arrested.

As of this month, 96 juveniles have completed the program, the judicial branch said.

Like Chute, Spagnolo sees the need for increased services. But he also thinks laws need to be changed and kids need to be held accountable for their crimes. “I know it’s been a tough, tough year but we all have a level of accountability that we have to live up to,” he said. “I think we’ve lost that on a lot of levels.”

Gov. Ned Lamont said Tuesday the state is considering alternate ways of handling repeat offenders including placement in group homes with mentors and parole officers who would provide more serious support. Lamont also wants consequences to be immediate – not issued months after an arrest.

“For those one- or two-offense kids, let’s find a way to mitigate the reasons why they are doing this that doesn’t involve incarceration or detention, it involves psychological and wrap-around services,” Lamont said. “But for those repeat offenders, and there may be 100 of them that overwhelmingly cause the majority of these crimes, we ought to know who they are. Judges ought to know who they are so they can come up with the right way to handle this.”

Lamont didn’t necessarily think that legislation would be needed to put plans into action to deal with repeat offenders. “The question is, do we need legislation or is this an IT issue between our judiciary and judges and our police chiefs?” Lamont asked.

The working group is looking at various issues surrounding the car thefts, Stafstrom said, including whether police are applying to a judge to have youth who are deemed dangerous detained. 

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, Stafstrom’s co-chair on the Judiciary Committee, said he will consider altering the law if there’s a determination that the law needs to be changed.

“There are certain things I’m not interested in doing right now and that includes throwing more kids in prison,” Winfield said. “I’m interested in the gaps in the system.”

The problem, Chute said, is that there aren’t enough services for youth to address problems after the first or second arrest. His department has dealt with a 15-year-old who has been arrested 17 times since he was 12 on a variety of charges including theft of a firearm. “He’s out on the street right now,” Chute said.

Another 17-year-old has been arrested 40 times since he was 12 on charges including theft of a firearm and assault with a firearm, Chute said.

As for the youth charged in the death of Henryk Gudelski, a 53-year-old jogger who was thrown across the street into a dumpster by the impact of the crash, Chute wonders why nothing prevented him from reoffending even though he had been arrested at least 13 times before.

Chute also insists that allowing police to chase youth in stolen cars will not solve the problem. “I totally disagree with that,” Chute said. 

“What we need is some mechanism that prevents juvenile offender recidivism. The real problem is the repeat offenders, not the kids who do it once or twice and then are done. The repeat offenders need consequences and services including mental health counseling and services for their families to address what they need. No, it shouldn’t be locking them up and nothing else. Right now we are failing these offenders and failing to protect the public.”