Don't let new law allowing secret trials stand

They are among the most disturbing of crimes. A young person is charged with sexually assaulting a child, or murdering a parent, or setting fire to an occupied home. How could a person so young do something so cruel? What kind of background did the teen come from that might have contributed to the aberrant behavior?

And, of course, the ultimate question in a judicial system driven by facts, governed by law and requiring proof — did they do it?

Yet, unless something changes, as of Tuesday, Oct. 1, the case of any person aged 15 to 17 charged with a serious crime, even if it was transferred to adult court, will become subject to closed proceedings. A neighbor could be raped or murdered, but you will have no way of knowing who has been held responsible, and we as a news organization will have no way of reporting those facts to you.

The new law, “Confidentiality in the Case of a Discretionary Transfer of a Juvenile’s Case to the Criminal Docket,” was part of an omnibus criminal reform package. It contained items for the law-and-order crowd, such as some tougher sexual assault laws, increased penalties for the sale of Fentanyl, and closing a loophole that had allowed perverts to take “upskirt” pictures and recordings in a public place without violation of law. It also contained plenty for progressives, including a study of disparities in plea deals and sentencings tied to race, new storage requirements for guns and protections for undocumented immigrants.

That broad approach left plenty of fingerprints on the bill and explains its unanimous approval.

But this particular “reform,” intended it seems to protect children from having their alleged misdeeds displayed for the world to see no matter how heinous, goes too far and should be repealed as soon as possible.

There is a good reason that routine juvenile matters are handled in a closed juvenile court system. Young people’s brains are not fully developed, their sense of boundaries and right or wrong likewise not well formed. It makes sense that bad choices made in childhood should not leave an individual with a permanent record that could hinder for a lifetime the ability to succeed.

But it also makes sense that serious crimes, committed by older teens, be handled differently — both for the public good and the protection of the defendant. In such matters as murder and rape, there can be no place in an open society for secret trials and plea deals. The public has a right to know what form of justice, or lack thereof, resulted from a case. And the defendant, who may be facing a long imprisonment, also deserves the protection that comes with public scrutiny that may raise questions about the fairness of a judge, the makeup of a jury or the credibility of a confession.

If this law remains, it is quite possible it would not stand up to a constitutional challenge. But it shouldn’t have to come to that.

Lawmakers are quickly running from the law they made, saying they either did not know it was in the omnibus bill or did not think it meant secret proceedings, just better protections for young defendants. Well, now they know. They have a chance for a do-over.

The General Assembly should meet in special session to repeal the law and Gov. Ned Lamont should sign the repeal.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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