Gavel (Christine Stuart photo)

Advocates are asking Democratic lawmakers to reject a bill that would give prosecutors greater latitude to send more teens to adult courts and adult prisons.

“We’re opposed to the whole bill,” Christina Quaranta, the executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance, said. “The bill is being purported as reducing crime, but it does none of that. It doesn’t address the root issues and causes that lead to crime.”

HB 5417 was crafted as a compromise to several Republican proposals that would have automatically sent 13- and 14-year-olds to adult court for certain violent crimes and provided police and prosecutors with more authority to detain and track teens who are accused of violent crimes and car thefts.

After car thefts and juvenile arrests for car thefts rose during the pandemic, Republicans have pounded Democrats as soft on crime and unwilling to address juveniles who commit violent offenses.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

But Quaranta said the bill, crafted during a gubernatorial election year, was “campaigning on the back of kids.” She vowed that in the coming days her organization would urge Democratic lawmakers to not vote in favor of the bill. “This is making it easier to send kids to detention,” she said. “That’s just a band-aid.”

Judiciary Committee member Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, called the bill a compromise that included a lot of Republican proposals to deal with juveniles who are repeatedly committing crimes.

“I am satisfied with the bipartisan effort that went into the bill,” Fishbein said. “I will be voting in favor of it.”

Fishbein also noted that nearly every member of the Judiciary Committee voted in favor of sending the bill to the House.

The version of the bill that will be debated in the House in the coming days does not include the section that would have required 13 and 14-year-olds accused of serious crimes to receive an automatic transfer to adult court.

But it does allow the courts to mandate GPS monitoring for juveniles accused of a second car theft offense and broadens the time a juvenile can be sentenced for a “serious” homicide, firearm, or sexual offense beyond the current 30-month maximum juvenile sentence.

The bill also gives police access to juvenile records for criminal investigations in their municipalities, requires children who are arrested to be brought before a judge within five days of an arrest, and extends the time from six to eight hours when a juvenile can be held by police while waiting for a judge’s detention order.

It would also create a new penalty structure for car theft based on whether it’s the first or a subsequent offense and not on the value of the vehicle. Other sections include $1.25 million in funding for the Judicial Branch’s REGIONS program for juveniles who are on probation but required to be in a locked residential setting, $750,000 for the branch’s Juvenile Alternative Incarceration program, and $1 million to the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection for regional crime reduction strategies.

The money is an indication that the committee was willing to fund initiatives that would address the root causes of crime, Fishbein said. “Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t read the bill,” he said.

The bill doesn’t include any of the recommendations from the state’s Juvenile Justice Oversight and Policy Committee, which proposed that juveniles who were charged for the first or second time with simple trespass, creating a public disturbance, disorderly conduct, and sixth-degree larceny would not be arrested but instead referred to a youth service bureau or juvenile review board in their town or area.

The YSB or JRB would determine if the child, or the family, needed services and would address accountability for the crime with restorative practices such an apology, community service, or restitution.

JJPOC members also voted to send a recommendation to the legislature that would expand the committee to include four members of community organizations that had expertise in juvenile justice.  But that hasn’t been acted upon either.

Quaranta is hoping that some of the JJPOC recommendations will make it into other bills before final passage in the House and Senate.

HB 5417, as it stands, will disproportionately impact Black and Brown youth who tend to be arrested, detained, and convicted at a higher rate than white teens, according to Quaranta.

“Connecticut knows better,” Quaranta said. “It’s disappointing that this is being held up as ‘look we got together to reduce crime.’ This is definitely not going to do that.”