Child Advocate Sarah Eagan Credit: Courtesy of CT-N

“Dangerous,” “rooted in fear and bias” and “a shameful political tactic” were a few opponents’ descriptions of a package of Republican bills aimed at cracking down on car thefts and other juvenile crime.

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Monday on elements of the “Safer Connecticut” plan from Senate Republicans and other bills from House Republicans, most of which focus on what they contend is a statewide crime wave. The proposals range from additional electronic monitoring for juveniles to allowing 13- and 14-year-olds to be automatically sent to adult court if they are charged with certain violent crimes. 

The package of proposals prompted former state Supreme Court Justice Lubbie Harper Jr., who chairs the state’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparity in the Criminal Justice System, to issue a blistering statement.

“Advocating for punitive policy in response to a highly sensationalized narrative threatens to return the state to a ‘tough on crime’ mentality that is rooted in fear and bias and disproportionately impacts Black and brown members of our communities,” he wrote. 

“The emotional nature of the rhetoric being used is not only dangerous because of the anger and fear it provokes, but also because it distracts attention away from finding and implementing evidence-based solutions to the motor vehicle theft problems – investing in rehabilitative services and programs and reminding folks to take preventative actions like not leaving their keys in their car or their key fobs too close to their vehicle,” Harper said.

The retired justice wasn’t alone in his criticism.

“[T]he majority of children incarcerated in the adult correctional system in Connecticut are Black boys, a foundational and critical problem in our system that remains unresolved,” State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said in testimony to the committee.

Her office “strongly opposes” any move to put more teens into the adult system or to lower the age of transfer to the adult system, she said. 

House Republicans are proposing quicker arraignments for juveniles, doubling the time that a juvenile convicted of murder can be incarcerated to 60 months, and allowing 13- and 14-year-olds charged with certain violent crimes to be automatically sent to adult court.

Senate Republicans are calling for electronic monitoring for juveniles on their second offense, to increase the amount of time police can hold a juvenile while seeking a detention order and other reforms including more workforce development, more summer jobs programs and more recruitment for teens in urban areas to attend vocational-technical high schools.

“It is critically important to have a multipronged plan to address crime, justice, and opportunity in our state,” said Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford. “While other portions of the Safer Connecticut plan have been raised separately and some by other committees, I must underscore that this package is intended to be a holistic solution. The sum is far greater than its parts. If we want to accomplish the significant changes that address the root causes of crime as well as response, then we must consider all these policy proposals together. Justice reforms and opportunity must go hand in hand. You cannot address one without the other.”

But Harper, Eagan and others including the Center for Children’s Advocacy, which represents juveniles in the adult system, and the Connecticut Justice Alliance, which supports youth and young adults that have been justice-impacted, point out that the pandemic has amplified a sense of isolation and disconnection for many kids who are now acting out in a variety of ways.

“The narrative for the past few years, coinciding with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been that Connecticut is experiencing tremendously high rates of crime being committed by youth,” said Christina Quaranta, executive director of CT Justice Alliance. “This is not supported by data and is a shameful political tactic to win votes on Election Day and to stoke fear in communities across Connecticut. Along with these mistruths being spoken about young people and their families, the people making these erroneous claims do not offer any solutions that would actually address the root of why young people are committing crimes.”

Harper, whose commission works to eliminate the racial and ethnic disparity in the criminal justice system, said the politicization of car thefts had “racially charged overtones” that make the body’s work harder.

“This commission has worked diligently to mitigate the influence and impact of implicit biases in our state’s justice system — through training and conferences wherein members of state and local law enforcement, public defenders, prosecutors, and other community leaders come together to learn about how these biases affect our behavior,” Harper said. “The current public dialogue around this issue is directly undermining this important work.”