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Connecticut Republicans continue push for juvenile crime reform; Democrats claim GOP is 'manufacturing outrage'

Hartford — Lawmakers are sparring over the issue of juvenile car thefts.

During a news conference Tuesday morning, Republican state legislators introduced a plan to decrease what they say is the serious problem of juvenile crime.

As part of a response to a Friday news conference held by Democrats, and in a continued effort to convene a special session on the subject, Republicans called for reforms that include GPS monitoring of juveniles arrested while awaiting trial on other charges, and implementing victim panels as well as juvenile delinquency hearings.

In July, Republicans asked to convene a special session to address the issues. House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said at the time that leadership was not talking about scheduling a special session.

Republicans on Tuesday said bipartisan discussion had mostly broken down, as Democrats reject Republican claims and argue that the GOP is manufacturing outrage.

"We have submitted our petition to call a special session," House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said. "We're asking for our colleagues in the Senate and the House to also sign that petition to reach that threshold and get us back into session."

Gov. Ned Lamont has said he doesn't think new laws are necessary, though he expressed concern about recidivism — the likelihood to commit more crimes — among those younger than 18, and echoed Republicans in saying that, at a certain point, repeat offenders must take responsibility for their actions.

Republicans said it's a fundamental flaw of the state's justice system that juveniles can repeatedly steal vehicles without much consequence. They say there needs to be a way to impose consequences on repeat offenders rather than sending them back to their families or to group homes.

Other provisions in the proposal include making fingerprinting mandatory for juveniles arrested on felony or Class A misdemeanor charges, charges resulting from serious injury or loss of life, sexual assaults, "a serious juvenile offense, or an offense involving use of a firearm."

Republicans also suggest a study of "the potential use of (state Department of Children and Families) group homes and the Connecticut Juvenile Training School to house certain non-violent juvenile offenders, juveniles whose parents or guardians have requested law enforcement or judicial assistance correcting troubling behavior, or as hubs for residential diversionary or job training programs."

The Republican proposal looks to expand circumstances in which juvenile cases are automatically transferred to the regular criminal, or adult, docket and to amend the definition of a serious juvenile offense to include second or subsequent offenses of larceny of a motor vehicle.

Another reform, which state Rep. Greg Howard — a Stonington Republican and police officer — touted on Tuesday, would allow law enforcement to access juvenile records "to ensure an officer has complete information to use in seeking a post-arrest detention order."

"One of the things I think is most important is the ability for officers to have access 24/7 to pending juvenile cases," Howard said Tuesday. "The statute allows the juvenile court to share that information with law enforcement, but the juvenile court's only open during the day. The fact is, a kid that's stealing his seventh car creates a greater risk to society than a kid who stole one, and an officer has to have that information available."

While a Republican-backed bill focusing on juvenile car thefts failed this year, parts of it did find its way into two other bills, both ultimately signed into law by the governor, this past session. Senate Bill 1093 makes it a crime to entice a minor into committing a crime, as legislators heard that some adults were recruiting minors to steal cars for them. The bill also requires the state Judicial Branch to study ways to decrease time between a youth's arrest and court appearance.

In addition, House Bill 6505 compels the Judicial Branch to collect data on juvenile detentions and report to the General Assembly in order for legislators to better understand and address the issue.

State advocacy groups including the Connecticut Justice Alliance, Tow Youth Justice Institute at the University of New Haven and the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, held a news conference last week to push back on Republican rhetoric around the issue. Those gathered said the idea that there is some marked increase in juvenile crime is overplayed.

"We share today what many are not informed enough about to understand — facts, data and truth," state Rep. Anthony Nolan, a New London Democrat and police officer, said at the time. "The tools are there, we just need to use them, and stop pretending there's no fix for the problem. If we want better than what's existing, then we need to stop cutting and to fund community-based alternatives, remedial education, drug abuse programs, foster homes and out-patient health care facilities. Fund the agencies better!"

According to data produced by the Tow Institute and gathered by the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, motor vehicle thefts have steadily declined in Connecticut since 1991. People who are under 18 accounted for 36% of motor vehicle theft arrests last year, versus 28% from 2010 to 2019 and 48% from 1998 to 2009. The institute also includes a quote from the National Insurance Crime Bureau explaining why the slight increase in juvenile crime thefts in 2020 came to be.

"Considerations such as (coronavirus) pandemic, economic downturn, loss of juvenile outreach programs, and public safety budgetary and resource limitations are likely contributing factors," the bureau said in a statement.

Pushing back on Republican talking points that call for some kind of harsher discipline for repeat-offending juveniles, the Tow Institute said, "Diversion is a more cost-effective public safety strategy than court processing for low-risk youth. As a result, diversion is an effective solution to directly address racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system."

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, explained why Republicans were focusing on the issue this summer.

"After having seen in Niantic a car theft that could have easily resulted in the death of a perpetrator or someone else, this is something that needs our attention," she said. "I would couple finding out what are the best programs to prevent recidivism with real consequences in the case that there are repeat offenders."

s.spinella@theday.com

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