Juvenile crime bill inches forward in legislature, drawing some criticism
A proposed bill cracking down on spiking juvenile crimes in the state is receiving support from some local police departments and criticism from juvenile criminal justice advocates.
The bill, HB 6669, is co-sponsored by state Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, a Stonington police detective. It is inching forward in the legislature after going through a public hearing this month.
The bill proposes imposing stricter consequences for teenagers ages 15 to 18 who are repeatedly charged with stealing or attempting to steal vehicles, an issue that has been prevalent across the state this year, with spikes in car thefts reported across southeastern Connecticut.
According to figures provided by the state Judicial Branch, there was a nearly 20% increase in the number of car thefts in the state in 2020 compared to 2019. Police departments in East Lyme, Norwich, Ledyard and Waterford have all reported increases.
Howard said the bill is meant to deter teens from becoming involved in criminal activity and from repeatedly committing crimes.
“It's’ designed to stop the behavior of the juveniles who are engaging in delinquency and get them on a better path,” said Howard. “The goal is that we do not want to see kids come into the juvenile system and continue to be offenders; once they come into the juvenile system, the goal is to understand why they’re committing the crimes that they were and really work toward preventing them from doing that in the future.”
Criticism of the bill
Marisa Halm, attorney and director of Teen Child Youth Justice Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy in Hartford, said the center submitted written testimony against the bill, fearful that it will do more harm than good.
“We understand that the committee is attempting to find some ways to get at the root of the problem. We don't think that this bill is the answer,” said Halm.
Halm said she is concerned with two parts of the bill specifically, including the establishment of a new crime that targets adults who persuade juveniles to commit crimes.
“We see this as a problematic way to criminalize new criminal behavior that isn't clearly defined and is likely going to target young adults,” said Halm.
Howard said that a lot of children are being “used as pawns” and “acting at the direction of an adult” who recognizes that a teen would face less severe consequences than an adult. The bill aims to mitigate that by including criminal penalties for those adults.
The CCA is also concerned, said Halm, with the proposal of GPS monitoring for juveniles prior to any conviction.
“This is a huge infringement upon basic due process rights and it’s something that we see as very detrimental,” said Halm. “It's essentially putting a young person on probation and criminalizing them before they’ve actually been found to have done anything.”
Halm said that while there has been a spike in car thefts in the past year, they are not all linked to juvenile suspects. She and her colleagues believe that any alleged spike in juvenile crime is a symptom of the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than a flawed juvenile criminal justice system.
She said that the rise in juvenile crime rates, specifically car thefts, is connected to a lack of structure teens have experienced this year, with most being forced out of schools, sports and extracurricular activities for at least part of the pandemic.
“There's just been a complete dearth of in-person opportunities, extra curricular activities, after school activities, there's been a real lack of that,” said Halm, which experts think is having a negative impact on teens and children.
Halm said that virtual learning is the root of disengagement that many teens are experiencing and that the CCA has been working with schools and the state department to try to keep kids engaged during a stressful year. The focus, she said, should be on what’s being done to counteract that disengagement.
Halm said she thinks that the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program recently launched by Gov. Ned Lamont will help engage children and teens.
The program, announced by the governor on April 12, is aimed at engaging with K-12 students who struggled with absenteeism and disengagement during the 2020-21 school year as a result of the pandemic.
The LEAP program will partner with the state education department and the state’s Regional Education Service Centers to provide support for student enrollment in summer camps and learning programs, to help facilitate transitions back into school communities in the fall and to help bridge students back to their school communities for the end of this year.
New London and Norwich are two of 15 school districts that will receive LEAP funding.
Howard: Early intervention the key
Howard said that when it comes to juvenile crimes, early intervention and prevention are the number one goal. His hope is that teens can be helped before they get to the point of stealing a vehicle.
“We should be able to identify steps long before a kid steals a car — there were other things that happened before that whether they were absent in school too much, they were getting in trouble at school, etc.,” Howard said. “We’re trying to find ways, through collaborations with other agencies. The answer is not one sided, it’s multi-layered depending on what stage of the delinquency process a kid is in,’ he said.
Karen Lau, a senior at Norwich Free Academy who is the president of the Norwich NAACP youth council, is an advocate for juvenile criminal justice through her work with the youth council. She said she is concerned with the bill’s criminalization of teens and hopes the state legislature will focus on more restorative and supportive programs for teens.
“I think all too often kids may not have role models or support systems and without having support systems and educators who empower and believe in them they might go astray,” said Lau, who said implementing more juvenile review boards for juvenile crimes may help.
Working on juvenile review boards to make sure that kids don't fall back into these same patterns is the best way to help these kids, she added.
Lau said she was concerned by language in the bill that proposes identifying teens as "serious juvenile repeat offenders" upon their second theft conviction.
“When you call them serious juvenile offenders, you’re missing that they are still a human being and I don't think you can treat kids the same way as adults in the criminal justice system,” said Lau. “I think having juvenile review boards that see people as kids, not as repeat serious juvenile offenders, is the best way toward justice.”
Lau said she hopes that more attention is given toward investing in educational, supportive programs for teens that give them a chance to grow and make changes.
“I think the community should recognize that we need to invest in all of our youth,” she said. “And teens and kids who have committed crimes should have the same opportunity to learn from their mistakes and grow from their mistakes.”
Howard said he is also working on legislation that focuses on early intervention and opportunities that give teens a second chance in their adulthood.
In Norwich, the number of crimes involving juvenile suspects has been climbing for about five years, said police Sgt. Harrison Formiglio. Most recently there’s been a spike in the number of car break-ins and thefts, including a number of cases in which teenagers traveled to the city from other cities, like Hartford, to steal cars.
Formiglio said Norwich police have been working with other police departments and with the judicial system to try to stop the spiking car thefts. They’ve recently implemented a new field in their dispatch reporting system to better identify vehicle break-ins and thefts to help the courts keep track and identify trends.
But, despite their best efforts, vehicles are still being stolen.
“It doesn't appear that what’s in place is working well now, so I think that a change to try to effect a better result is a good thing,” Formiglio said of the bill. “I think we’re on board for whatever is going to work, whether we need to get involved in the community more or pass laws.”
Formiglio said he thinks that new legislation should be partnered with a more holistic solution to get to the root of the problem.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but I think in general it has got to be a more collaborative effort with everyone, getting more community involvement in the schools and other programs,” he said.
Capt. Matthew Galante of the New London Police Department said the city hasn’t seen an uptick in juvenile crimes this year, but rather a drop. New London has, however, seen a stark increase in the number of motor vehicle thefts reported — in 2020, 84 vehicles were reported stolen, compared to 41 in 2019.
Galante said the best way to mitigate the rise in thefts, whether committed by juveniles or adults, is for people to be more proactively protective of their property, by always locking their car doors, and the department is trying to spread that advice.
Chief John Rich with the Ledyard police department said that the town has seen sporadic spikes in crimes, mostly vehicle thefts and break-ins, in which teens are traveling from other cities to commit crimes in Ledyard.
The department received reports of nine vehicles being stolen in the past year, compared to an average of two per year in years past.
“For us, for our community, it’s a real increase and one of the things we try to do is tell our community that the best thing you can do is secure your stuff, look out for your neighbors and if you see something, say something,” he said. But those steps don’t seem to be preventing the thefts.
Rich said he thinks that teens may think twice about traveling to another town to steal vehicles if there are more severe consequences enacted by new legislation.
“There’s no real deterrent consequence to these actions, that’s where a lot of the frustration comes from,” said Rich. “if there are, word may get out on the street that there are consequences.”