Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Capping months of debate on youth crime in Connecticut, the Senate approved legislation Wednesday which will allow police greater flexibility to detain young offenders and give courts discretion to require GPS monitoring devices on unsentenced arrestees.  

The Senate’s 35 – 1 vote followed a vote last week in the House, where several Democratic members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus opposed the bill. Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, cast the Senate’s only dissenting vote.

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

Republican legislators began calling for a tougher approach to young offenders last summer as a rash of incidents involving car thefts and minors made headlines around the state. Democrats largely argued the crimes were part of a nationwide trend and a symptom of the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the issue emerged early as a priority for many policymakers facing re-election this fall and the Senate put a bipartisan compromise bill across the finish line Wednesday, on the final day of the legislative session. 

Few seemed happy about it. Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, introduced the bill by describing himself as a “reluctant proponent” of the legislation. 

“Although I am standing as the proponent of the bill, I don’t think there’s a victory here today,” Winfield said. “We have gotten here because of a conversation people engaged in before they knew the facts on the ground.”

In broad strokes, the bill lets courts require tracking devices on repeat child offenders and increases the time police can hold minors while they seek a court detention order. It requires that young offenders appear in court within five days of their arrest and balances larceny charges so the theft of an economy car is weighted the same as a high-end vehicle. Another provision raises the maximum sentence for a minor convicted of gun crimes, murder or sexual offenses to 60 months.

Wednesday’s Senate debate included moments where Republicans and Democrats appeared to agree on ideas to improve the bill, even if those ideas were ultimately rejected due to time and fiscal constraints. 

Republicans tried unsuccessfully to change the bill with an amendment that included provisions attempting to provide safe housing, reduce truancy, provide young people with more mentors and access to social workers if they experience trauma in their neighborhoods.

“We didn’t start where many others did with just looking at the symptoms and looking at just solely punitive actions,” Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly said. “What we looked at was what I started with: how do we make Connecticut a stronger state? Yes, our economy is a major factor in this.” 

Winfield urged rejection of the change despite agreeing with some of the provisions it contained.

“I wish this is where we started,” Winfield said. “I wish that we had sat together and wrestled with it and made good policy out of it but we didn’t because there are people who wanted to have a punitive approach … and that’s where we started and that’s why you get the bill that’s in front of us that doesn’t do that but its core is that. And so today I rise, unfortunately to say I’m sorry but we should not pass this bill because what it would in effect do is kill the bill in front of us.”