A Thursday address on youth crime by Gov. Ned Lamont prompted renewed calls for legislative action from Republicans but left some, including other Democrats, wondering what action the governor was proposing.
Lamont appeared for a late-scheduled news conference on the steps of the Capitol building and took no questions from the media. He told of a heart-wrenching meeting with the family of a 14-year-old boy who died this week in a Waterbury hospital from a gunshot wound.
The event also included remarks from James Rovella, commissioner of public safety, Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, as well as Andrew Woods, executive director of Hartford Communities that Care, and Jacquelyn Santiago, CEO of COMPASS Youth Collaborative. Collectively they seemed to be arguing for two different and, according to some, contradictory policy directions: greater investment in community and support services as well as stricter penalties for a small number of minors believed to be responsible for serious crimes throughout the state.
On Friday, Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who is co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said it was unclear to observers what policy action Lamont was seeking.
“I think at some point the governor’s going to have to clarify what his intention was,” Winfield said. “I’m sure he means well, but I just honestly am not sure what it was the governor was attempting to do there.”
In some ways, the governor’s remarks echoed a series of press conferences held by Republican lawmakers throughout this year. Republicans have pointed to reports of car theft and violence in Connecticut and urged Lamont and other Democrats to convene a special legislative session to enact stricter policies for repeat youth offenders. Democrats have generally argued that criminal justice statistics do not support Republican claims that Connecticut policy had resulted in an increase in crime.
“I’d like to think the crime rate’s going to continue to go down, but it is not enough,” Lamont said Thursday.
At times during the event, the governor seemed open to increasing the use of GPS tracking on youth offenders, an idea proposed often by Republican lawmakers, and encouraging more community policing and the hiring of more judges. He also talked about places to house youth offenders “short of full prison.”
“We’ve got secure group facilities for the kid that’s not– go out and have the opportunity to endanger himself or endanger others and hopefully get back on the straight and true but they’re not out in the community causing risk and mayhem which is what we’ve got going on right now,” Lamont said.
Winfield said he believed Lamont meant well, but felt the governor’s contribution to the ongoing debate over juvenile justice was perhaps unhelpful. “It’s murky. I don’t know that it hurts, but it doesn’t help,” he said.
Asked at an unrelated event Friday to clarify his remarks Lamont told NBC Connecticut he believed much could be accomplished to curb youth crime without legislation.
“When it comes to judges, when it comes to police, when it comes to social service supports, we’re already doing that. So I think that’s taken care of. But I’m going to sit down with legislative leadership and see what else they think would make a difference in these kids’ lives,” Lamont said.
On Friday, Winfield argued there was no compelling reason for lawmakers to convene a special legislative session if the plan was to adopt stricter disciplinary policies for juvenile offenders. The approach has been ineffective in the past, he said.
“The effort to be more punitive has actually backfired on us. It hasn’t made us safer and it’s cost us more in the lives of people who get deeper into our system,” he said.
The Connecticut Justice Alliance echoed Winfield’s comments in a Friday press release.
“Increased incarceration is never a solution; we know this from history and generations of impact. We need solutions based on addressing the root issues young people face that lead them into the system to enact meaningful reforms,” the group wrote. “Since Connecticut started to close prisons, our crime rate has sunk to historic lows. We must continue on that path.”
However, in press releases Thursday, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, who has been calling for a special legislative session since July, said Democrats should read a clear message into Lamont’s comments.
“The time for doublespeak and trying to disprove this public safety crisis is over, and after today I don’t see how the governor can do anything but call the legislature into special session to tackle this emergency,” Candelora said.