Undersecretary of the Office of Policy and Management Marc Pelka presents his report to the Criminal Justice Advisory Counsel Credit: Courtesy of CT-N

The coronavirus pandemic has had both good and bad impacts on Connecticut’s criminal justice system, according to a report recently released by the state Office of Policy and Management.

Overall arrests are down 28% since 2017 and the prison population and the number of violent crimes were down by sizable percentages in 2020 when compared to 2010, according to data gathered by Marc Pelka, the undersecretary of criminal justice for OPM and a team of OPM analysts.

But during the period from 2019 to 2020 as the pandemic impacted Connecticut and the country, murders and the number of car thefts went markedly up – statistics that are driving calls by some state legislators for a tougher stance on crime, particularly for youth who commit repeat offenses.

Pelka released the findings during a virtual state Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission meeting  held on Oct. 28. The commission is made up of various state department heads that have a stake in the criminal justice system including the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Pelka had been updating the commission annually on similar statistics but was not required to do so until this year with the passage of PA 21-97 which mandated his office to release the data each October.

For the most part the findings showed “contractions” within the state’s criminal justice system that were in some cases created by policy choices and in others by the pandemic, Pelka said.

“There have been contractions occurring at points across Connecticut’s criminal justice system over the past decade in many cases beginning in 2010 that have played out in declines in reported crimes, arrests, correction admissions and the correction supervision population,” Pelka said.

The pandemic as it began to play out in 2020 caused “an inflection point that in many cases accelerated these contractions and introduced significant changes and challenges,” Pelka said.

More than 20 months later as the globe, the country, and the state are still dealing with COVID-19, it’s hard to predict whether the volume within the criminal justice system will rebound, Pelka said. But he felt the work that has already been done to divert low risk populations so that the most serious responses could be focused on the most serious cases will serve the state well.

“I think Connecticut has the capacity and policies and practice in place to respond with greater effectiveness than if these improvements hadn’t been made,” Pelka said.

Overall crime has fallen by 30% in Connecticut in 2020 compared to 2010, with a 37% drop in violent crimes including robberies, sexual assaults and aggravated assaults and a 29% drop in property crimes during the same period. But from 2019 to 2020, the number of murders increased by 36, from 122 in 2019 to 157 in 2020, Pelka said.

The number of murders in 2020 represented a 30% increase from the year before. Nationally murders increased by 28% during the same timeframe, the report said. In Connecticut, murders were up 7% from 2010, the data showed.  

“That’s a somber and sobering number,” Pelka said of the additional 36 murders in 2020. “There’s a loss of life, every loss of life is tragic. What’s happened in Connecticut happened nationally from 2019 to 2020, there were similar increases.”

The bulk of the 2020 murders – 58% – were concentrated in four of the state’s largest cities, Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury which are home to 14% of Connecticut’s population, the report said.

So far in 2021, there have been 142 homicides, according to Chief State Medical Examiner James Gill. The bulk of the homicides will be deemed murders but in Connecticut the term “homicide” means that one person’s actions lead to the death of another person. Not every homicide in the state is deemed a murder.

Property crimes including burglaries were down 28% from 2010 but car thefts went up 41% from 2019 to 2020, according to the report. “The burglary rate was cut by more than half,” Pelka said.

Dealing with motor vehicle thefts are challenging, Pelka said. Unlike other crimes that are reported less than 50% of the time, four-fifths of motor vehicle thefts are reported nationally, Pelka said. But at the same time the “clearance rate” or the arrest rate for motor vehicle thefts is only about 14%, he said. “It’s very hard to apprehend the thieves of motor vehicles,” Pelka said.

In the fiscal years 2017 to 2021 which runs from July 1 to June 30 each year, arrests were down 28%, criminal cases added were down 34% and corrections admissions were down 40%, according to the report. Overall the state’s prison population decreased by 51% from 2010 to 2020, the report said. But there has been a slight increase in the number of inmates since the fall, Pelka said.

The goal of the report was to provide stakeholders within the criminal justice system an in-depth look at what was happening annually, even though there continues to be uncertainty as the pandemic plays out, Pelka said.

“I think it will be a helpful way for identifying further initiatives, further collaborations, further policies, further budget priorities, etc, as it involves the criminal justice system,” Pelka said of the data.

The numbers in the report indicated that more work could be done, but that the state’s criminal justice system was on the right track, said Gary Roberge, the executive director for the Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch. “We have to keep making progress,” Roberge said. “But everything is pointing in the right direction right now.”