Gov. Ned Lamont (courtesy of CT-N)

A community center in suburban Glastonbury served as the backdrop for a Tuesday press conference touting the passage of a recent law designed to curb youth crime which followed a rash of auto thefts in Connecticut and elsewhere since the onset of the pandemic.

During the mid-morning event, Gov. Ned Lamont announced he had signed a bill passed by the legislature and signed into law back in May. The new law allows police greater flexibility to detain young offenders, gives criminal justice officials access to more juvenile records and allows courts discretion to require GPS monitoring devices on unsentenced arrestees. 

“Public safety is our number one obligation and, I think we found over the last few years, public health,” Lamont said. “Making sure that people are safe and making sure that people feel safe.”

The bill was a divisive product of long negotiations between the administration and members of the legislature. Its eventual passage followed months of press conferences hosted by legislative Republicans who demanded policy answers to several high-profile and sometimes violent incidents involving young offenders. 

Rep. Jill Barry, D-Glastonbury, said the Riverfront Community Center where Tuesday’s press conference took place had also been the venue for a town meeting one year earlier when residents were alarmed by “car thefts, reckless behavior and brazen criminal acts happening in broad daylight.”

“Our community was shaken and our safety threatened,” Barry said.

Rep. Ron Napoli, Jr., D-Waterbury, said lawmakers believed in second chances but wanted residents to feel safe in their communities and schools.

“We want to put cars in our driveway and make sure that they’re there in the morning,” Napoli said. “For all this to be possible we must give our judicial system and our law enforcement the resources they need.”

But while the law’s passage might have diffused what otherwise could have been a hot-button campaign issue, it was unpopular with a group of criminal justice reform advocates and some Democrats in the legislature, who argued the state was experiencing the same pandemic-driven rise in incidents as the rest of the country. 

During late-session debates, some legislators argued that greater investments in community services would have been a more effective response than punitive measures. On Tuesday, supporters — which included Democratic legislators and law enforcement officials — paired their remarks on the bill with praise for new funding included in the state budget designed to support services for at-risk young people.

However, Rep. Geraldo Reyes, a Waterbury Democrat who chairs the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, was frank about the bill’s politics.

“It’s not lost on me that I’m the only Black and brown person standing up here right now,” Reyes said. “This has been a very, very difficult topic in the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus and I’d be lying to you if I told you this was a consensus… That said, it is about the safety of the community and children, especially those at risk and a lot of those children are those I represent.”

Reyes said members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus would continue to work on legislation related to juvenile justice reform. 

In the meantime, several law enforcement officials said they had seen a reduction in some crimes including auto thefts. Glastonbury Police Chief Marshall Porter attributed that decline in part to a regional task force. 

“As you know, Glastonbury was a hotbed of activity with regards to stolen vehicles with related crimes,” Porter said, adding that officials had succeeded in taking a number of stolen cars off the streets. “They’ve done a real good job in bringing down some of those numbers but the challenge is we’ve always got to remain vigilant. This bill is a step in the right direction.”

But youth justice advocates disagreed.

“As we have maintained since the start of the legislative session, any bill that supposedly looks to address crime is just an election-year ploy that only serves to lock up Connecticut’s children, especially those that are Black and Brown,” Iliana Pujols, Policy Director for the Connecticut Justice Alliance, said. “Several law enforcement officials at Gov. Lamont’s press conference today remarked that car thefts are on the decline. The passage of the bill touted by the governor and others had no impact on those declining numbers. Tracking, arresting, and involving more children in the judicial system only increases negative outcomes. We need to be addressing the root causes of the problems in our communities. We should be working collaboratively across the state’s cities and towns to support young people by investing in communities, not punitive practices. These are children in crisis who need our support. They don’t need to be thrown into the adult carceral system.”