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New law enables juveniles to be tried in secrecy for serious crimes

As of Tuesday, the public will no longer have access to court information about juveniles charged with serious crimes, including murders, sexual assaults and shootings.

Court appearances and even trials for juveniles ages 15 to 17, whose cases were transferred from juvenile court to adult court due to the seriousness of the charges, will be conducted in secret under Public Act 19-187. The bill was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate in the waning hours of the last day of the Connecticut General Assembly's 2019 session.  

State judges who were unaware of the new law were briefed on it during the past week, as were Judicial Branch staff members, who will be required to create separate dockets and seal the files of the 15- to 17-year-olds.

The cases will be sealed unless and until the juvenile pleads guilty or there is a guilty verdict after trial, though it is unclear how the media or public would be notified of the existence of the case. Victims would have some access to the process, though the details have not been worked out.

The law applies retroactively to 104 cases currently pending in state courts, according to records obtained from the state Judicial Branch. The records will be sealed as of Tuesday.

In New London, nine pending cases will be sealed, including that of Adonis Smith, 17, who faces weapons and narcotic charges in Connecticut and Rhode Island; 15-year-old Miguel Negron of Norwich, who is accused of stabbing three people at the Tanger Outlets in October 2018; and Raymond Clifford of Norwich, who was 17 when he allegedly sexually assaulted a 6-year-old.

The murder case of teenager Marcus Fisher, who had turned 18 two months before he allegedly killed his grandparents at their Montville home in January 2019, will remain open.

The new law is the latest in a series of reforms passed in recent years at the recommendation of the state Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, a group of lawmakers, state officials and child advocates. The reforms have been made in recognition that juvenile brains are not fully developed, that children should be treated and rehabilitated rather than jailed in adult prisons, and that black children, particularly boys, are disproportionately incarcerated in adult prisons in Connecticut.

State prosecutors take part in the juvenile reform policy group and have generally supported the measures aimed at treating and rehabilitating juvenile offenders without burdening them with a criminal record. But the division, and individual prosecutors, also cautioned that a small number of repeat juvenile offenders pose a threat to public safety.

"I don't say it lightly," said juvenile prosecutor Lonnie Braxton II of New London. "But some of them are a danger to themselves and others. Sometimes justice requires a firm hand in order to save not only the victim, but the perpetrator, as well. At the end of the day, he or she is going to return to society to be with us."

In the case of Adonis Smith, who has been charged at least three times with gun and drug crimes, Braxton had written on a form used to transfer cases from juvenile to adult court that the best interests of both Smith and the public would not be served by keeping the case in juvenile court. Braxton wrote that in the past three years, Smith has exhausted and/or rejected the services of the juvenile court, having been placed on probation twice and on parole once for a serious juvenile offense.

Under current policy, the cases of children 14 and under remain in juvenile court regardless of the seriousness of the charge. Some teens charged with serious crimes and tried in adult court are granted "Youthful Offender" status at the discretion of the court, in which some of the proceedings are confidential. The new law extends to cases that are so serious, they would be tried publicly, and will keep the records and court appearances sealed until the child has pleaded guilty or been found guilty by a jury. The trial itself would not be conducted in public.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, was one of 13 legislators who sponsored the juvenile bill, which was amended several times and included other measures when it was enacted on June 5, the last day of the 2018-19 session.

She said by phone that she had been most concerned about juveniles being restrained and kept in solitary confinement, noting there were cases of children who had committed suicide in custody. Those issues and others will be addressed by the bill, which also expanded mandated reporter requirements to protect children, Somers said. 

As for the juveniles being tried in secrecy, she said maybe it's something that should be revisited. The initial proposal would have kept the cases sealed in their entirety, Somers said.

"I think this was the best compromise, because frankly the majority was going to push this through where it was completely sealed so that even the victims didn't have access," she said. "Everybody supported it in the end. When you're so outnumbered, you tried to improve it."

"We were told, 'They're youths. We'll go through the process. If they're found guilty, everything is released,'" she said.

State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, sits on the Judiciary Committee, where the bill initially was reviewed. She said it came through from the juvenile justice police committee as a 34- or 35-page bill resulting from a multiyear study with a lot of participants and containing many compromises. She said the point was to give juveniles who were charged with serious crimes the full adult penalties while protecting those who are not convicted. 

"They're charged with these horrible felonies and may not be convicted of those horrible felonies," she said.

The bill also provides a measure to transfer a case back to juvenile court if a felony is removed, she said.

Like Somers, she said, "It if turns out it should be looked at again, then it should be looked at."

From the media's point of view, the new law poses First Amendment issues.

Superior Court Judge Joan K. Alexander, the state's chief administrative judge for criminal matters, presented information about the new juvenile law at a meeting of the state Judicial Media Committee on Monday, prompting surprised reactions from judges who are handling juvenile cases in their adult courtrooms and questions about its constitutionality from members of the media. Lobbyists for news industry groups such as the Connecticut Newspaper Association and Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information appeared to have been unaware of the bill.

Judicial Media Committee member Chris Powell, columnist and former managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, published a column on Wednesday titled, "Secret trials for murder are now Connecticut law," in which he asserted that what is being portrayed as "reform" is "a reversion to the totalitarianism against which this country fought its founding revolution."

Powell asserts that all courts should be open, and that the secrecy in juvenile court proceedings "exempts prosecutors, defense lawyers and courts from accountability for everything they do in juvenile cases."

"It has allowed juvenile justice to fail constantly without any evaluation and correction," Powell wrote.

k.florin@theday.com

 

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