Juvenile, marijuana policies on agenda for current legislative session

The state agencies involved with courts will focus on the juvenile justice system, Connecticut's evolving marijuana policies and the refining of existing laws on divorce and foreclosure during the legislative session that began Feb. 7 and will adjourn May 9.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget proposal calls for raising the age for protection of young people charged with crimes to 20 and shifting the responsibility of detaining troubled children from the state Department of Children and Families to the Judicial Branch. The DCF-operated Connecticut Juvenile Training School will be closing in July. The Judicial Branch operates two juvenile detention facilities, in Bridgeport and Hartford.  Malloy's proposal also calls for increased community services for troubled juveniles.

While the trend is to keep juveniles out of prison, Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane said in an interview Wednesday that his office is proposing legislation that would give judges more discretion to decide whether a juvenile charged with serious crimes should be detained prior to a court appearance. He said past changes have restricted the detention of juveniles unless a judge makes a finding that the juvenile poses a danger to the public.

In an opinion article in The Hartford Courant in Aug. 27, Kane wrote that teens who commit crimes have been emboldened by the changes in the law that give them more protection and fewer repercussions. Under the proposed legislation, police would be able to obtain court orders to detain teens overnight for habitual serious conduct.

"We just had too many incidents in which juveniles committing serious crimes could not be detained by the police and by the courts," Kane said Wednesday. "Right now the police, if they arrest a juvenile for committing an offense, they have to release that juvenile unless a judge make a finding the juvenile poses a danger to the public in general."

In the opinion piece, Kane cited cases in Hartford and Meriden in which juveniles in stolen cars were involved in crashes that resulted in deaths and life-threatening crashes.

Once a detained juvenile appears in court, judges could determine whether or not there are community services available, Kane said. His office also is proposing greater discretion for judges to decide whether the cases of children ages 15 to 17 should be transferred to adult court. Some of the most serious crimes, including murder and aggravated sexual assault, are transferred automatically, but Kane said the law that enables transfers to be discretionary in many cases prevents the state from imposing appropriate sanctions on teens who exhibit serious, repetitive criminal conduct.

"All we're asking is that the legislature give the judges more authority to transfer a small amount of cases," Kane said. "Most juveniles, the juvenile court is well equipped to deal with them."

Kane acknowledged the proposals are at odds with the governor's office and said many of the reforms enacted, including the 2009 law that raised the age for juvenile protection from 16 to 18, were good overall.  The problem, he said, is that judges' discretion has been narrowed too far.

Marijuana proposals

Connecticut lawmakers have submitted two bills that propose legalizing and taxing marijuana, an effort that has failed in recent years but could be gaining more support due to budget concerns and national trends.

The Division of Criminal Justice is proposing legislation that would make it illegal for anyone, to smoke marijuana while driving. Kane said it is more difficult for police to enforce impaired driving laws when marijuana is involved.

"We want to make it an offense to smoke marijuana while driving," Kane said. "That bill would also prohibit using marijuana in the car while driving and while occupying a vehicle." 

The law is modeled, in part, on one that was enacted in California, effective Jan. 1, that smoking or ingesting marijuana while riding or driving in a car is illegal.

Proposed divorce, mediation laws 

The Judicial Branch, which operates the state's court system, and the Division of Public Defender Services, which provides legal representation to defendants in criminal cases who can't afford attorneys, are expected to weigh in on major legislative proposals involving their operations.

One law proposed by the Judicial Branch would make it easier for people to obtain a divorce in cases where their spouse has refused to cooperate or respond to divorce proceedings. Divorcing parties who have no children or significant property or alimony requirements could waive the required 90-day waiting period, and finalize a divorce within 60 days, with a court's approval.

"In 2015, there was a bill that included a provision where parties who had an agreement could waive the 90 days for a divorce," said Matt Berardino, a staff attorney for the Judicial Branch. "We've worked with a lot of stakeholders to come up with a way to waive the 90 days in divorce actions where the party does not appear, where the other person refuses to cooperate and has taken off to parts unknown."

Several other Judicial Branch proposals are designed to fix oversights that occurred when past laws were enacted, said Doreen Del Bianco, deputy director of external affairs. One tweak would add veterans to the class of people that state agencies cannot discriminate against and another would terminate the bonds for juveniles that are granted a diversionary program, as they are for adults.

The branch also is proposing a technical fix to the foreclosure mediation law that allows people who filed foreclosure actions prior to 2009 to have an attorney appear in court on their behalf. The proposal would allow those who filed actions after 2009 to not be present for court appearances.

The majority of proposals involving the criminal justice system will have to be raised by General Assembly's Judiciary Committee in order to be considered for passage.



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