By Paul Hughes, Republican-American
HARTFORD — A bipartisan working group of six state legislators is exploring how state laws and policies might be changed to address repeat juvenile offenders committing car thefts and other crimes.
With Democrats and Republicans starting off poles apart, it is uncertain if this joint search discovers any common ground on juvenile justice that has lately proven hard to find in the General Assembly.
A spike in youth crime centered on auto thefts has caused increasing concerns and increasing political sparring over the proper response.
House and Senate Republicans loudly complained that the Democratic majority did not do enough in the 2021 legislative session, and Democrats dismissed the criticism and later GOP demands for immediate action until a series of high-profile incidents changed the conversation, including the death of a New Britain man who was running on a sidewalk when he was fatally struck by a stolen car with a juvenile thief at the wheel June 29.
One of the results was the formation of the working group on youth crime.
The three Democratic and three Republican members are trying to identify how juvenile justice laws and policies might be revised, and, the much harder part, forge consensus to enact administrative or legislative changes.
“I’m hoping we can make many changes. I think you’re going to see some proposals relatively soon,” said Rep. Craig Fishbein, the ranking House member of the Judiciary Committee.
The rest of the panel’s roster includes Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, and Sen. Gary Winfield, the House and Senate chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, the ranking Senate Republican of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, a deputy House minority leader, and Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, chairwoman of the state’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee.
The Republican agenda is clearly defined, and, while far less specific, Democrats have been clear they are not looking to go as far and as fast in making changes as Republicans propose.
Republicans have proposed eliminating, or at least tolling, the six-hour limit on detaining certain juveniles without a court order, and requiring courts to order repeat offenders be electronically monitored until their criminal proceedings are resolved.
Other GOP proposals would permit courts to deem a juvenile to be a risk to public safety on a second offense for certain crimes instead of a third, or would require cases of any juvenile charged with car theft be automatically transferred from the juvenile matters docket to the regular criminal docket.
Republicans have recommended the state Department of Children and Families investigate the family circumstances of a repeat offender charged with stealing a car or any offense involving a deadly weapon, including making a determination if a child should be removed from the home.
Another recommendation proposes to revise the state’s model police pursuit policy to allow police officers to pursue suspects stealing cars in certain circumstances.
Stafstrom reiterated that Democrats are uninterested in making wholesale changes to juvenile justice laws, or undoing recently enacted reforms, but he said Democrats are interested in identifying gaps in the juvenile justice system and prudent fixes.
He said one shortcoming that Democrats and Republicans agree needs correcting is the inability of police officers to access arrest records of juveniles to look up if a youth has charges pending in another town or city when determining whether to seek a detention order.
“Currently they don’t have that information. We think they should,” Stafstrom said.
The working group is privately meeting with key players in the juvenile justice system and others to exchange ideas and discuss the ramifications of any suggested changes in state policy and law.
Panel members have already met with police chiefs and other police organizations, judicial officials and public defenders, Stafstrom and Fishbein said, and a meeting is scheduled this week with Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo. Community advocates are also being consulted.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, is objecting to the working group’s closed-door approach. He has called on other legislative leaders to broaden the scope of the bipartisan talks and open them to the public.
“Connecticut is at a crossroads when it comes to making our state safer,” Kelly said. “We can choose quick fixes and nibble around the edges. Or, we can start down a new path to not only establish appropriate consequences to combat crime, but also to prevent crime, to create opportunity and hope, and to rehabilitate by looking at the big picture.”
Stafstrom disagreed with Kelly that the working group or the Judiciary Committee should be conducting public hearings.
“I actually think it is more productive to try to have nonpartisan, one-one-one conversations with stakeholders in the system. That’s what we have been doing,” he said. “I think those one-on-one meetings are often more fruitful and productive than a kind of orchestrated hearing would be.”
Fishbein agreed with Stafstrom that these meetings have been insightful, but he said Republicans are looking for action.
“I think us hearing from the stakeholders, us bringing our ideas to them, using them as sounding board, taking some requests from them has been helpful,” he said, “and I think once we get a reaction from the Democrats as to our proposals, if they don’t accept all of them maybe going to the people next is the best thing to do, and that is not necessarily a hearing.”