Brittany LaMarr Credit: Contributed photo

Brittany LaMarr told a juvenile justice reform panel in Fairfield that she initially didn’t understand why the struggles she faced as a teen led her to several arrests as a young adult and prison time.

“I just knew I need to eat, I need to sleep somewhere, I have no stable home life,” said the 30-year-old, who is now a justice adviser with the Connecticut Justice Alliance.  

It wasn’t until she landed in adult court facing numerous burglary charges that LaMarr was able to receive help “excavating the reason why I interacted with the world the way I did,” she told the group, which included legislators, Fairfield police, youth advocates and policy analysts.

“Incarcerating young people just kicks the can down the road,” she said.

Whether to lock up teens is a policy question that is being hotly debated on both sides of the aisle as an increase in car thefts during the pandemic has plagued suburban communities and outraged residents.

As Republicans are offering several reforms that would require more teens to face a judge in adult court, policymakers are swaying in the opposite direction – initiating plans to expand services to take more juveniles out of the criminal justice system rather than impose stiffer penalties.

“No one is saying it’s not a problem,” said Michael Lawlor, who formerly served as House chair of the Judiciary Committee and also undersecretary of criminal justice under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy who led the charge on juvenile justice reforms. “What we’re saying is, what is the problem?”

The increase in juvenile crime in the past two years depends on whom you ask and which set of crime statistics they use. There is no comprehensive statewide system to track juveniles from arrest to final disposition for cases of car theft or more serious charges related to car theft, such as homicide or shootings.

According to the Connecticut State Police Crime Analysis Unit, which collects crime statistics reported by police departments from around the state, 247 juveniles were charged with car theft in 2020. That’s about 36% of the arrests for car thefts reported by police that year.

The percentage is on par with the past few years, according to Ken Barone, policy director for the University of Connecticut’s Institute of Municipal and Regional Policy. Car thefts were at about 20,000 a year in the 1990s with juveniles comprising 50% of the arrests made, Barone said.

But since the state began instituting juvenile justice reforms in 2010, the number of car thefts has dropped, Barone said.

The state police data shows 8,439 reported car thefts in 2020 – an increase of about 29% compared to 2019 when there were 5,996 reported car thefts statewide. In 2018, there were 7,333 reported car thefts, Barone said. The number of car thefts in 2019 was the lowest since state officials began compiling information on the crime in 1985, Barone said.

But the state police arrest data is an incomplete picture. Police entering arrests in the system can only submit one crime per person, Judicial branch officials said. Some departments may classify a car theft as “larceny” or as the taking of a motor vehicle without the owner’s permission, which are different charges from auto thefts. As a result, the state police numbers don’t count every juvenile who has been charged with a car theft.

In 2018, the Judicial branch began keeping track of the number of juveniles who were involved with car thefts whether they were the driver of the car or a passenger. By the agency’s tally, there were 910 juveniles arrested in 2020 for auto theft – a 23% increase over 2019, when 738 teens and children were charged with auto theft,

As of Dec. 15, there were 625 juvenile arrests for auto theft in 2021, the agency said. 

Looking at 2020, 42% of the juveniles arrested were first-time offenders. Of the first-time offenders, nearly 2 out of 3 were  released without any type of court supervision, according to the Judicial branch.  Of the total 910 arrested, 146 young people were charged with auto theft five times or more. More than half of those juveniles, 55%, had car theft cases dismissed, discharged or not prosecuted, the data shows.

That doesn’t mean that the young people received no sanctions or services, according to Gary Roberge, executive director of the Court Support Services Division, which manages all juvenile cases. Roberge said it’s more likely that the charges were dismissed in favor of more serious charges which were prosecuted.

Neither the Judicial branch nor the Division of Criminal Justice, which prosecutes cases, has data tracking what happened to those cases.

Roberge said that between juvenile probation officers, community-based providers, “brick and mortar” programs that give at-risk or justice-involved teens vocational training and clinical therapy provided at home, the services available through the juvenile court system are more robust.

“We have many different levels of services depending on the risk level and need of the child,” Roberge said.

The agency is working on rolling out a “credible messenger” program to pair at-risk teens with people who have lived experiences within the juvenile justice system; family engagement programs linking probation officers more closely with the families of the teens they oversee; and a restorative justice program for kids in detention centers where they can discuss and learn from their actions, Roberge said.

The Judicial Branch does have programs that divert first-time offenders from a conviction to rehabilitation – if they are adults, Roberge said. But most wouldn’t be appropriate for teens, he said.

“Those programs aren’t intended to serve juveniles on the deeper end of the juvenile justice system,” Roberge said.

A small percentage of juveniles go to adult court to face charges as an adult, Roberge said. The majority remain in juvenile court with the teens overseen by juvenile probation officers who also have contact with the teen’s family, school and treatment providers.

The caseload for juvenile probation officers, who oversee all aspects of a youth’s detainment, supervision and release is about 18 to 20 juveniles per probation officer, Roberge said. That’s less than half of the caseload for probation officers who oversee adults in pre-trial proceedings or after they have been sentenced to probation, which he said is between 55 and 60 adults.

Earlier in 2021, Roberge’s division began working with the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee on a plan to remove all detained juveniles charged as adults from the Manson Youth Institution and York Correctional Institution, the only state prison that houses women, to secure facilities where they would receive services, an education and vocational training while in pre-trial adult court proceedings.

Two weeks ago, a federal investigation concluded that Manson was violating the constitutional rights of juveniles by subjecting them to inappropriate isolation and not providing adequate mental health treatment or educational services for kids with disabilities. The state has 49 days to correct the problems or face a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Attorney General, the report said.

The removal of the juveniles from state prisons stands in stark contrast to proposals pitched in recent months by Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, and Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, who want more juvenile cases moved to adult court, including cases involving 14-year-olds who commit serious crimes.

While those proposals may play well in the suburbs, which have seen an increase in stolen cars and car break-ins in recent years, they don’t necessarily lead to good policy that addresses the problem, said Lawlor, who is now a University of New Haven criminal justice professor.

“I don’t think there is any evidence that a juvenile who didn’t kill someone is going to be facing bigger penalties in adult court,” Lawlor said. “I think it’s unlikely that kids stealing cars will get more attention in adult court.”

Juveniles and adults held on adult charges can post bond and be released, while teens who are detained by a juvenile court can’t be released without a judge’s approval, Lawlor said. “The average juvenile case is not going to get more attention in adult court,” Lawlor said. “When you are in juvenile court, you are a big fish in a small pond. When you’re in adult court you’re a small fish in a big pond.”

According to the Judicial branch, in 2020, 104 juvenile cases were automatically transferred to adult court based on the seriousness of the charges. Two more transferred to adult court at the discretion of a prosecutor. That’s out of more than 2,600 juvenile arrests that entered the court system from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, 2020.

The Judicial branch has made some immediate policy changes based on proposals by Republicans and current events. Police departments can now request the criminal history of a juvenile and, as of last month, all juveniles charged with car theft or a gun offense are to be arraigned on the next available court date whether or not they have been detained.

But JJPOC, which annually issues recommendations to enhance the juvenile justice system, is on track to seek legislation limiting youth entry into the criminal justice system. According to the three-year strategic plan it approved last month, the goal is to reserve the courts for cases that can’t be resolved with diversionary or support programs and to reduce incarceration for youth whether they are facing juvenile or adult court.

The key to preventing kids from entering the juvenile justice system, and later, the adult justice system, is recognizing the red flags and getting them help before they commit crimes, LaMarr told lawmakers.

She was 17 or 18 when she was first arrested for driving under the influence, she said. “But the trouble started way before then,” she added. “Without addressing the root issues and trauma, those issues persisted.”

She was an All-State soccer player in high school but also voted “Most Likely to Skip Class,” LaMarr said. She would run away from home to stay with her father, who had been incarcerated and was often homeless, she said. That created a level of instability that fed her trauma leading her to addiction and committing more serious crimes, LaMarr explained.

She started committing residential burglaries to feed her addiction and was eventually sentenced to 4½ years in prison. After her drunk-driving arrest, she was required to attend a seven-week alcohol education program that LaMarr said didn’t address any of her problems.

“It’s pretty clear that arresting isn’t the solution if you don’t address what’s driving the issue,” she told the juvenile justice reform panel.

LaMarr has gone on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Connecticut and now is in the master’s program studying public policy. She also did a fellowship with a Yale law clinic and was accepted to two law schools. She hasn’t decided which she will attend, she said.

Despite the accomplishments, she said she still has trouble finding a job due to her criminal record. In her work as a justice adviser, she acts as a voice for young people who have been involved in the justice system.

“It’s easy for people to use pieces of information to push a false narrative,” LaMarr said. “It’s hard to ground policy when it’s based on fear-mongering. We need to rethink how we look and what our perception is of justice-involved youth. We need to connect young people with resources when the red flags come up before crimes are committed.”