Banning the use of pepper spray on incarcerated minors and raising to 14 the minimum age at which a young person can be arrested were among the legislative priorities outlined this week by the Connecticut Justice Alliance.
The group included its 2024 policy priorities in its first annual State of Youth Justice Report, which it released Monday alongside a press conference streamed on Facebook. The proposals included prohibiting the use of chemical agents on people under the age of 18 in state prisons.
“It is known widely throughout this state and throughout the country and I would frankly say, the world, that we should not be spraying people in general and especially children with chemical agent in order as a method of control, to end fights, etc.,” Christina Quaranta, the group’s executive director, said.
The Department of Correction sometimes employs chemical agent — more commonly known as pepper spray — as a means of regaining control over violent incidents like fights at its facilities. That includes facilities that house minors like the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire.
A spokesman for the agency did not immediately return a request for information left Tuesday morning, however the department reported 19 incidents in which chemical agent was utilized in incidents involving an individual younger than 18 between June of 2021 and February of 2022.
On Monday, Quaranta said her group intends to advocate for legislation requiring the agency to find other means of containing incidents without the use of pepper spray.
“This [the DOC] is the only place someone can be sprayed with chemical agent,” she said. “It does not happen in the Judicial Branch with young people or in educational settings. There are other ways to address that.”
The legislature has considered similar proposals to end the practice in the past. Although a bill proposed last year by Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, stalled in the Judiciary Committee without a public hearing, the panel did take public testimony on the matter during previous sessions.
In 2021, DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros testified in opposition to banning the use of pepper spray in incidents involving minors. Quiros told the committee that chemical agent was only utilized after other interventions had failed.
“I must caution that losing this option altogether during a significant incident would increase injuries to youth and our staff,” Quiros said. “It would also likely result in more of my staff being out on Workers Compensation due to injuries which could have been avoided.”
The provision was also met with opposition from the AFSCME Council 4 labor unions representing state correction officers. During the same hearing, Aaron Lichwalla, an officer at MYI, told the committee that pepper spray was sometimes needed during fights involving more than one youth.
“This can cause the fight to quickly cease, stopping what would most likely be worse injuries,” Lichwalla said. “Otherwise, the only other alternative to breaking up a fight would be with ‘hands on’ techniques. We strongly try to avoid hands on situations, as typically additional and unnecessary injuries will occur.”
Another legislative priority for the youth justice advocacy group involved raising the age of arrest from its current minimum of 10 years old up to 14 years old.
“If a child is committing a crime at that age, it’s likely that they have a huge unmet need that needs to be addressed, right?, and prison is not going to do that,” Quaranta said. “That’s the question we need to be having: Where do we need to improve our behavioral health and mental health system for young people and the resources that are available for them and their families?”
Connecticut last updated its minimum age of arrest back in 2021, when lawmakers voted to raise it from 7 years old to 10. Last year, bills proposing to raise the age to 12 and 14 failed to advance out of the Judiciary Committee.
In an interview Tuesday, Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the panel, said he supported both policies advanced by the advocacy group. However, Winfield said it was too soon to say whether the legal panel would endorse either during next year’s session.
Winfield said political pressure related to how Connecticut handles young people in the justice system has complicated efforts to pass policies advocated by groups like the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee and the justice alliance.
“We’ve still been getting stuff done, but it’s been at a pace that’s slower than a lot of the players, the people who have invested their time — the JJPOC — and others would like to see,” Winfield said. “All of these policies come into that political reality. As long as I’m there, we’re going to keep moving forward. The question is, how fast is the pace?”