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Conn. bill imposes stiffer penalties for juvenile offenders

Proponents hope the bill will crackdown on repeat offenders and reduce rising car thefts by juveniles


Hartford Courant

By Christopher Keating
Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — Looking ahead to the fall elections, the state Senate granted final legislative approval Wednesday to changing the state’s juvenile justice laws in hopes of reducing crime and targeting repeat criminals.

Legislators have battled for the past two years over crime in Connecticut, with Republicans saying there are far too many young criminals stealing cars and Democrats saying that statistics show that overall crime is down. The issue has already been mentioned by Republican Bob Stefanowski in his rematch against Gov. Ned Lamont, and lawmakers said they expect the issue to be raised in the fall elections.

The bipartisan measure passed by 35-1 with the only negative vote from Sen. Dennis Bradley, a Bridgeport Democrat who said that more money must be spent on education in order to reduce crime.

The bill doubles penalties for some serious crimes, speeds up arraignments for juveniles, and allows youths to be held for eight hours instead of the current six hours as the suspect’s criminal history is being investigated. The measure also allows global positioning system (GPS) monitoring for repeat criminals while charges are still pending, among other provisions.

“Although I’m standing as a proponent of the bill, I don’t think there’s a victory today,’' said Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the judiciary committee. “People started talking about the [crime] crisis we had before they knew what that meant. ... The data tells a story that during the height of the pandemic, we had less car thefts than many of the administrations before this administration.’'

He added, “The perspective of crime is generally what you see in your area. ... That’s why you get this crazy mix of opinions.’'

Sen. John A. Kissel of Enfield, the ranking Senate Republican on the judiciary committee, countered that the state’s new police accountability law of July 2020 “went way too far in the wrong direction and unfortunately tied the hands’’ of police officers who strongly opposed the bill after the death of George Floyd while handcuffed in police custody in Minneapolis.

“Clearly, homicides and injuries committed with firearms have gone up,’' Kissel said of Connecticut. “I listen to my constituents. If they feel unsafe, something has gone wrong. ... I also know what my eyes tell me and what my ears hear. I trust my eyes.’'

Kissel offered an amendment, which failed along party lines, to expand college scholarships, make police reforms, and target trauma and truancy, among other things.

Sen. Daniel Champagne of Vernon, a former police officer for 22 years, said

during his police career, he encountered criminals who had been arrested 70, 80 or 90 times.

“We treat criminals as the victims,’' he said. “We say second chance, but in the state of Connecticut, it’s the 30th chance or 40th chance. ... It is very difficult to go to prison. ... Watching what’s going on around our country is sickening.’'

Saying education is highly important, Champagne said, “Nobody should be in high school with a fourth-grade reading level.’'

Sen. Rob Sampson, a conservative Republican from Wolcott, said that former Gov. Dannel Malloy’s “risk reduction credits’’ program in prison should be measured for its impact 10 years later.

“We’ve only moved in one direction — away from punishing offenders,’' Sampson said.

Bradley, a Bridgeport Democrat, said crime can be reduced with better education as only a small percentage of Bridgeport students are proficient in school.

“We either invest in the front end or invest in the back end,’' Bradley said. “We’ve done that before, and it doesn’t work.’'

Republicans have complained about crime in the past, but they were particularly galvanized last year by the hit-and-run death of a 53-year-old New Britain jogger by suspected teenage car thieves. The incident prompted them to call for a special session to enact tougher penalties and curb the ongoing surge in auto thefts and related crimes.

Democrats countered that concerns about crime have been overblown because crime has been trending downward statewide and Connecticut ranks as the fourth-safest state in the nation. They rejected a “get-tough-on-crime’’ approach that they said did not work in the past as criminals need to be rehabilitated in order to continue living their lives.

The 22-page bill would allow longer prison sentences for serious crimes for young criminals — increasing the maximum to 60 months, up from 30 months, and allowing for a judge’s discretion.

Another key change in the bill is that there will no longer be higher penalties for stealing a Rolls Royce in Greenwich than a lesser-value car. Instead, lawmakers said they were more concerned about targeting repeat offenders. After a second car theft, a Superior Court judge will have the ability to order a juvenile criminal to be released into the custody of a parent by having a GPS monitor, rather than being sent to jail.

The funding for the GPS monitoring is $1.4 million, but some lawmakers thought that was too high for the number of young criminals involved.

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