Lawmakers agree to meet again on juvenile crime issues
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A bipartisan group of Connecticut lawmakers agreed Wednesday to keep working together to possibly change some state laws and policies to address a recent string of car thefts and other crimes being committed by repeat juvenile offenders.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, stressed how he does not support wholesale changes to the state’s juvenile justice laws, noting Connecticut has been successful in reducing its rates of arrest and incarceration. However, he acknowledged there are some things lawmakers “can tweak and make better.”
“We have homework to do. But at the end of the day, I think everyone in that room felt like we could get there,” said Ritter, following a closed-door meeting with GOP legislators.
Earlier in the morning, Republican state lawmakers were signing petitions to call the General Assembly back into special session. At a news conference, flanked by local GOP municipal leaders and the police chiefs of New Britain and Wolcott, the legislators proposed eliminating a current 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, among other measures.
Following the bipartisan meeting, Ritter suggested Democrats might be open to making the six-hour limit, which was enacted in 2018 and tied to federal legislation, more flexible. Also, he raised the issue of judges not having access at off-hours to pertinent criminal records when they are asked to order a juvenile be detained.
“We looked around and said, ‘If I were a judge, I’d want to know that, I’d want to know that history if I’m going to make a decision on that,’” Ritter said.
New Britain Police Chief Chris Chute said “public trust” needs to be restored in the criminal justice system. He acknowledged it’s a small number of repeat juvenile offenders who are the problem, but they’ve become so “bold that they’re broadcasting on social media about how they’re driving around in stolen cars” and “bragging about the robberies they’re committing and the assaults they’re committing.”
“They’re taking no effort to hide their behaviors. And when we arrest them, they laugh at us because they know exactly what’s going to happen - nothing. We’re going to release them right back out,” he said during the news conference.
A 17-year-old with 13 previous arrests was recently charged in the fatal hit-and-run of a 53-year-old marathon runner in New Britain involving a stolen vehicle. Over the past four years, the teen had been arrested on a range of charges including assault with a knife, assault, robbery, reckless driving, larceny and possession of narcotics.
Democrats contend past legislative reforms are not to blame for current spikes in juvenile crime, noting crime rates in Connecticut have fallen dramatically over the past 10 years and 2019 had the lowest number of motor vehicle thefts in decades. But Republicans maintain past legislative reforms have made it more difficult to hold repeat offenders accountable, making constituents very worried about what they are seeing on the ground.
Chute said his department has seen an increased number of homeowners and business owners “taking matters into their own hands.” He said they’re “now confronting the juveniles. They’re tackling them, trying to hold onto them until we show up. They’re chasing them in some cases. This is not what we need. This is not what society should be.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, on Wednesday issued a statement accusing the GOP lawmakers of using the “tragic and painful event” in New Britain “to attempt to score political points in an effort to push failed, excessively punitive policies from the 80s and 90s.”
He said Republicans have “lost all credibility on public safety” when they were “silent on the U.S. Capitol insurrection” and opposed funding gun violence prevention programs in cities and other urban aid initiatives.
Rep. Steve Strafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers plan to talk with the Judicial Branch, public defenders, prosecutors and others to discuss the policy ramifications of any of the suggested law changes.
“As often happens on these issues, they’re technical, they’re complex,” he said. “There are both policy considerations as well as practical considerations of how you actually execute on some of the ideas that have been talking about.”
The group hopes to meet again sometime next week.