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Republican Party leaders talk criminal justice reform with Day Editorial Board

Republican state Senate leaders sat down with The Day Editorial Board on Monday to discuss their plan to curb what they say is rising crime in Connecticut. 

State Sen. Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, and Senate Republican Leader Pro Tempore Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, walked the board through the plan, which would require additional funding for certain programs. The plan would also reverse or alter key provisions in the 2020 emergency session’s police accountability bill. That bill, passed as a response to American policing following the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police, has been decried by Republicans as unnecessarily hamstringing police.

The plan proposes sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice system. 

The “crime response” portion of the plan states that murder, violent crime and auto theft are increasing in Connecticut’s cities, including Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury and Middletown.

Democrats, such as State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the Judicial Committee co-chair, have said the Republican push on crime is meant to spread fear and is for campaign purposes rather than a good-faith legislative proposal. Democrats say the statistics don’t bear out Republican claims.

The most recent FBI statistics show Connecticut to have the fourth-lowest amount of violent crime in the nation. In 2020, the state recorded a 36-year-low in violent crimes per 100,000 residents. 

“What’s troubling here is they’re [Democrats] are comparing Connecticut to other states when we really should compare Connecticut to itself,” Kelly said. “I’m not saying it’s always been violent, but we see a substantial and significant uptick in very violent behavior. You have the carjackings, you have murders, you have shots fired, and you have this violent behavior becoming more bold and brazen occurring. You need to look at comparing Connecticut year over year and see the trend line.” 

Senate Republican Press Secretary Nicole Rall said Republicans, like Democrats, are using FBI statistics that show car thefts in 2020 have increased 40% versus the national average of 11%. Republicans are using biweekly crime statistics from Connecticut’s cities as well. The latter source can sometimes show small overall increases in murders, for example, that account for high percentage increases. Nevertheless, crime numbers have gone up in some cases in the state’s cities. 

Republicans are proposing next-day court for juveniles, saying the system currently allows for too much time between arrests and court dates. Other proposals include allowing police, prosecutors, public defenders and judges to access juvenile records, “mandatory around-the-clock GPS monitoring of juveniles arrested for violent crimes or repeat offenses while they are already awaiting trial for a prior offense,” mandatory fingerprinting for juveniles in certain cases, and to expand or make easier the transfer of juvenile cases to adult court. In the case of these transfers, the Republican plan said the change will help “when a juvenile needs enhanced services and supports available through the adult court system.”

The plan also calls for an increase on the six-hour hold period limit in certain cases. Bryan Cafferelli, legal counsel for the Senate Republican Caucus, said the change would allow police to not have to work against the clock in seeking a detention order.

“This in conjunction with the requirement that the juvenile would be presented the next day or the next business day, you can see that it wouldn’t be expanding the six hours by much more. There can be an 8-12 hour or a weekend period,” Cafferelli said.

The Connecticut Justice Alliance, an organization that works to end the criminalization of youth, view the Republican plan as untenable, as reflected in a statement last week.

“Data shows that incarceration doesn't work. It causes more harm than good — impacting mental, physical, and emotional health while lowering chances of success and opportunity. The solution to addressing crime is not incarceration nor increasing reliance on law enforcement,” the statement reads. “The small population of children who are repeatedly coming into contact with the system do not need to be pushed any deeper into the system. They need more services and support from people who can relate to them and provide credible guidance.”

Republicans also included in their plan ways to prevent crime through community solutions. The plan proposes a summer jobs program for at-risk communities. It makes a case for ending hidden rental property ownership where the real owner is buried behind LLCs. It proposes changing Section 8 housing policies so that two-parent households have a greater chance to obtain assistance than they do now.  

It calls to fund or better fund programs aimed at helping kids with trauma and truancy or that provide mediation or mentorship. The plan gets into workforce development, saying high schools should focus on training students for manufacturing jobs, for example, or promoting entrepreneurship, in addition to preparing students for a college education. 

The plan would increase police funding for social media/data intelligence investigations and implement more robust efforts to  recruit future police officers in colleges and high schools. 

“We propose focusing state support on ensuring funding is available to assist police departments in budgeting for the modernization of intelligence tools,” the plan reads.

The plan does not specifically address recruitment of minority police officers, probation officers, social workers and teachers, all of whom would be needed in executing this plan, but Kelly said such a component “would be something we would certainly welcome.”

Following a 2020 summer of protests against racism in policing and pleas to “defund the police” and downsize police staffs, the Republican plan does the opposite, as it seeks to fix what they say are “shrinking” Connecticut police forces “due to increased retirements, low recruitment numbers, and officers exiting the force early.” Other parts of the plan require funding too.

Kelly said there are no clear numbers on cost yet. In the absence of a special session, Republicans would be looking to introduce the legislation in February 2022. During preparation the bill would go to the Office of Fiscal Analysis, which would determine the cost. 

Formica said the state should take advantage of its budget surplus to fund the Republican proposals, and that federal monies will be available as well. 

Republicans have a steep task in getting Democrats on board with their plan. They are lobbying for a special legislative session or at least public hearings on the issue. 

The Republican plan also seeks to revise portions of last year’s police accountability law, which requires officers to report instances of excessive force by colleagues, bans chokeholds in most instances and rolls back some qualified immunity protections for officers, allowing civil lawsuits to be brought against them in some cases.

The Republican plan seeks to amend the qualified immunity law “to allow governmental immunity to be a defense except in cases where an officer is acting in a manner evincing extreme indifference to human life.” The plan looks to “refine the ban on consent searches to permit certain ones” and to “strike the phrase ‘unreasonable, excessive or’” from state statute “to ensure an officer is only criminally liable for failing to intervene in another officer’s use of force if that force constitutes a crime.” 

Formica and Kelly both say they want this plan to create an open dialogue and to bring the majority party to the table. But they say police are unable to do their job under the current law.

“Recruitment and retention are being reduced among police today, so we need to get that back up and introduce the idea of community policing as a career,” Formica said. “Some of the frivolous lawsuits are concerning people in the police community. It’s stopping people from staying and certainly applying.”

Formica said that it’s encouraging that Winfield is supportive of some of the initiatives in the plan, but in general Democrats do not support the plan. 

“I haven’t talked to Democratic legislators in southeastern Connecticut, but I’m pretty sure guys like (state representative  and police officer) Anthony Nolan will be on board with this. He’s done such great work with the kids of New London, and he understands the problems of being a peace officer,” Formica said. 

Nolan said he’s been following the Republican push for criminal justice reform but that he hasn’t heard from party members personally. He criticized the way Republicans are advocating for the proposal.

 "If they wanted to really have a conversation, they would’ve contacted me. They don’t want to have conversation,” Nolan said Tuesday. “Obviously they’re going to push this for election purposes, and we’re not about that. … We understand the problems going on in different districts, but if they were serious they would’ve reached out to me. And they didn’t.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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