HARTFORD, CT — Claiming bipartisan talks had broken down, House Republicans outlined a handful of proposals Tuesday which they said would improve Connecticut’s juvenile justice system.
During a morning press conference on the north steps of the state Capitol, Republican lawmakers and one Democrat, called for changes including electronic monitoring of repeat juvenile offenders, required fingerprinting, and the automatic transfer to adult court for cases involving certain serious crimes.
“If you talk to residents, you talk to our police force, you talk to our judicial, our probation, they all have stories to tell you on how the system is broken and we are listening to these individuals,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said.
The news conference was the latest in an ongoing volly between conservatives seeking to address a string of high-profile youth crimes and Democrats as well as criminal justice advocates who say the headline-grabbing cases have masked a decades-long drop in juvenile car thefts despite an uptick felt in Connecticut and across the country during the pandemic.
Last month, members of both parties sat down for closed-door talks, after which they cited some common ground. But according to the Republicans, the talks had since fallen apart. On Friday, a group of Democrats and advocates held their own press conference and pointed to a 19% decline in youth car arrests during the first six months of this year.
Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said there were already adequate options for detaining juvenile offenders and said more should be done to provide diversionary services designed to prevent youths from becoming involved in crime.
“We need to collectively do a better job understanding the root causes of these crimes. We must shine a light on the issues, but not mar the light with untruths, lies and innuendos,” Walker said.
Republicans Tuesday accused Democrats of mischaracterizing their intent. Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said many residents had shared concerns about seeing their vehicles stolen or become victims of violent crime.
Fishbein outlined the Republican proposals, which he said warranted a special legislative session in order to pass. They included mandatory fingerprinting for youth offenders arrested for felonies or class A misdemeanors. Currently, police have discretion whether to take fingerprints in such cases.
The lawmakers also called for electronic tracking of some child offenders. If a youth who is already facing auto theft charges is then accused of stealing another car, they should be required to wear a tracking bracelet, Fishbein said. The legislature considered a bill including a similar proposal this year but it never passed through the Appropriations Committee. Fishbein said it was expected to cost about $1 million to implement.
Another change would require cases involving certain serious crimes to automatically transfer to adult court even if they involved offenders younger than 15 years old. Fishbein said the penalties doled out by juvenile courts were too lenient for crimes like murder, sexual assault, or attacks involving serious physical injury.
Currently, state law requires cases involving minors who are 15 or older to be transferred to adult court if they are accused of certain serious felony crimes.
“We can’t wait for next year,” Fishbein said. “We’ve been trying to get something done all session long.”
Michael Lawlor, a former legislator and associate criminal justice professor at New Haven University, said many of the proposals requested by Republicans were already options available to judicial and law enforcement officials. For instance, he said mandating the ankle bracelet tracking of young offenders may water down the effectiveness of the policy.
“It’s already an option. They already do it, they just pick and choose who they use it for,” Lawlor said. “Usually, it’s the most high-risk kids they’re really worried about… Probation officers will tell you it would make things more complicated if you put everybody on this.”
On other issues, there was common ground. Both Republicans and Lawlor, who is no longer a legislator, backed the idea of ensuring that police officers have access to the criminal records of juvenile offenders they arrest.
“It’s not going to reduce the rate of car thefts but it would be helpful,” Lawlor said of expanding the record access of local police officers. “That seems like a no-brainer.”
Other proposals pushed Tuesday by Republicans included requiring speedier arraignments for minors charged with serious violent crimes. They also suggested studying the feasibility of using state group homes and the shuttered Connecticut Juvenile Training School to house some troubled kids.
“Fifty-seven million dollars was spent on building — establishing CJTS. Perhaps it could be used for juvenile education training, for employment, those kinds of things, in a residential setting,” Fishbein said.
The Middletown juvenile prison has been closed since 2018. Lawlor said there was no compelling reason to reopen it, as it was expensive to operate and there was no shortage of space at the state’s two juvenile detention centers.
Although organized by House Republicans,Tuesday’s press conference was not a strictly partisan event. Rep. Jill Barry, D-Glastonbury, was also in attendance.
“This is not a party issue to me. This is a public safety issue and I stand with my community and my community is demanding action,” Barry said.