Gov. Ned Lamont

As Republicans continue to call for legislative action to address crimes committed by young people, Gov. Ned Lamont said at a news conference Thursday that the small number of young people who regularly commit crimes should be subjected to more serious consequences.

“Ninety percent of these kids are good kids” who have gone through a tough time in the pandemic, Lamont said, “and they need some additional supports. They need some additional love. They need the mentors, they need the apprenticeships. And some of these kids, we’ve got to be a lot stricter with.”

Lamont appeared alongside James Rovella, commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection; Neil O’Leary, Waterbury mayor; Andrew Woods, the executive director of Hartford Communities that Care, Inc; and Jacquelyn Santiago, the chief executive officer of the COMPASS Youth Collaborative. They spoke for about 20 minutes and didn’t take questions.

After the press conference, Lamont’s spokesperson, Max Reiss, clarified that the governor was not calling for a special session. Reiss said Lamont had been advocating that the state use its array of juvenile justice programs to address the problem of youth crime.

“This was his firm way of saying that we have existing tools at our disposal, that the Judicial Branch has, that probation has at their disposal, to address the issues of juvenile crime,” Reiss said. “This was the governor’s way of saying, we have tools, we need to use those tools. And if we use those tools, we believe you will see good results.”

Reiss said Republicans are trying to use a special session to roll back provisions of the police accountability bill passed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

“The governor will not sign off on anything like that,” he said.

The news conference was markedly different from press conferences held by other members of the Democratic caucus, which have focused heavily on data showing that crime in Connecticut, for the most part, is down. It was more similar in tone to Republican press conferences, which have focused more on anecdotal stories and pointed to upticks in car thefts and homicides during the pandemic as evidence that legislators should convene for a special session to address youth crime.

“I’d like to think the crime rates can continue to go down. But it is not enough,” said Lamont.

In a statement, House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, expressed sadness that it took the death of a teenager for Lamont to “acknowledge both the seriousness and depth of this crisis.”

He was referring to Will Vasquez of Hamden, a 14-year-old who died after being shot in the head Monday morning.

Candelora acknowledged the ongoing investigation into Vasquez’s death but said, “the fact that during a news conference he even mentioned Republican concepts as he stood alongside people demanding reform to our juvenile justice system should send a clear signal to legislative Democrats. The time for doublespeak and trying to disprove this public safety crisis is over, and after today, I don’t see how the governor can do anything but call the legislature into special session to tackle this emergency.”

Sen. Gary Winfield, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee and a New Haven Democrat, said he did not know the governor was planning to hold a press conference on juvenile crime on Thursday. He said he was “baffled” by the gathering and that it was unclear what his messaging was.

“He didn’t lay out anything in particular that he is trying to do,” Winfield said. “I’m unclear as to what’s really being said here. There’s a lot of, ‘The kids need resources, and we need to be stricter.’ Look, you have the governor standing there: Is the governor calling on a specific proposal, is he just informing? I don’t know what that was doing.”

Lamont did not offer specific policy proposals but indicated support for community policing and covering the cost of city’s overtime for police officers. He mentioned a change by the Judicial Branch allowing judges to have greater access to minors’ criminal records after work hours, allowing them to have more information when determining whether to detain them after they’re arrested. He referenced recent reporting showing that the pandemic caused a backlog of pending juvenile cases.

“We’re going to do everything we can to catch up,” Lamont said, noting that he’s going to appoint an interim class of judges so they can resolve the cases on a “timely basis” and help keep communities safe.

He said the state had options besides adult prison, like secure juvenile detention facilities, so the children are “not out there in the community causing risk and mayhem, which is what we’ve got going on right now.”

Also in attendance was Will Vasquez’ mother. The governor said Will Vasquez had been doing well until the pandemic hit, making him “a little stir crazy.”

Lamont said Will’s mother told him she wished her son had had more outlets and resources in the community. But she also told him, in Lamont’s words, “I wish the system had just been a little bit stricter,” that his probation had been a little more stringent, that the GPS monitor tracked where he was going, not just when he left the house.

“That would have probably given this kid a better chance to be alive today,” said Lamont.

Rovella said the state’s Major Crime Unit has taken over the ongoing investigation into who killed Vasquez. He declined to talk specifics of the case but said there were between 100 and 200 kids across Connecticut that “need to be slowed down in life” and taken into custody.

“Some of these kids become crime waves to municipalities and to different areas around the state,” Rovella said. “We need to save their lives … We need to make sure that they have the wraparound services. They need to know that we do not want to put them in jail, but we need to slow them down.”

Rovella said it was encouraging to see a decline in car thefts, “but we still need to do more, and that ‘more’ includes many more services for these kids — but 100, 200 need to come into custody to stop those crime waves.”

Woods and Santiago called for investments in community resources. Woods said loving family members for years have asked for support from the justice system, as well as their neighbors and community leaders.

“But we do live in a society right now that especially over the last couple of years has been stretched thin,” he said. “Until we make those investments and stop with the BS — until we make those investments, we’re going to keep seeing, unfortunately, search situations like this, where you have mothers and grandmothers and brothers and sisters out here grieving.”

Santiago said young people should be given rehabilitative services after they’re arrested to address the root causes of why they committed crimes in the first place. She rejected the idea that lawmakers have to decide whether to invest money into holding troubled youth accountable or rehabilitating them.

“Just the mere fact that we put them behind bars or monitor them alone does not mean that they won’t go out and do it again,” Santiago said. “It’s about teaching them the right path, giving them resources, giving them mentors that help them to make the right choices. And we have to make those investments. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.”

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.