A bipartisan bill changing how Connecticut’s criminal justice system handles young offenders appeared in jeopardy of stalling Thursday morning as a result of a partisan tug-of-war with less than a week left in the legislative session.
Democratic leaders in the House had planned on voting on the bill Wednesday but adjourned around midnight without raising the issue for debate. During a Thursday morning press availability, House Speaker Matt Ritter said he expected a vote later that day.
“I suspect we’ll be able to get some resolution,” Ritter said. “There was some back and forth on some language. I think we’ll be in a better spot today but, you know, if not, everybody has options at their disposal.”
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas said they had planned to run the bill, which he described as a bipartisan compromise, but alterations requested by other lawmakers forced them to change their plans.
“At any given moment there are individuals who can come in and say, ‘I would like this’ or ‘I would like that’ and we have to give it consideration,” Rojas said. “I think it’s unfair that they’ve chosen to do that to a bill that’s been worked on by both Republican and Democrats at this stage in the game but those things happen.”
As drafted by the Judiciary Committee, the bill increases the period in which police can hold a juvenile offender while seeking a detention order from six hours to eight. It expedites arraignments for young offenders and expands GPS monitoring of repeat offenders. The bill also equalizes charges for auto theft, removing a prior policy which scaled based on the value of the stolen vehicle.
On Wednesday, Rep. Steve Stafstrom, House chair of the Judiciary Committee, said it had input from both Democrats and Republicans.
“This is a compromise piece of legislation that everybody had hands in,” Stafstrom said.
In many ways, the bill caps months of back and forth between the legislature’s majority Democrats and Republicans, who began calling for more stringent juvenile crime policies last year in response to headline-grabbing and sometimes violent crimes often involving car thefts. Democrats maintained the state — like the rest of the country — was experiencing a rise in crime attributable to effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the bill contains provisions sought by Republicans, leaders of both Republican caucuses held a press conference Wednesday, saying the bill did not go far enough. On Thursday, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had concerns about the bill.
“From our perspective, it’s a bill that we certainly could pass,” Candelora said. “Is it the panacea to cure our issues? No.”
While Republicans contend the bill should go further, some criminal justice advocates have lobbied Democrats to reject the legislation. Earlier this week, Christina Quaranta, the executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance, called the bill an election year campaign “on the back of kids.”
House Democrats were meeting Thursday morning in an effort to find another compromise to move the bill forward before the session concludes in six days.
But even if the bill makes it out of the House it will still need to be approved by the Senate. On Thursday morning, Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he would run the bill approved by his committee. But he was wary of any changes being considered by the House.
“If you have a joint amendment that fixes some technical stuff, that’s fine. You start deviating from the agreement? Now the bill is in trouble,” Winfield said. “It’s that simple. I wouldn’t deviate from the agreement.”
Winfield has long opposed policies that would likely lead to more juvenile offenders incarcerated or involved with the criminal justice system.
“It would also increase the likelihood that these young people would spend a significant portion of their lives in prison, which means that the very thing that we’re trying to do will actually make us less safe,” Winfield said. “I’ve never sounded thrilled [about the bill] because we are responding to a public outcry with action and not information.”