Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, left, is flanked by other Senate Republicans as he speaks during an Oct. 13 press conference on juvenile crime.

The Kyle Rittenhouse not-guilty verdict is an illustration of our nation’s deeply lodged beliefs about the kinds of kids who belong in prison and the kinds who don’t.

In a lot of ways, we see those beliefs displayed right here in Connecticut as Republican lawmakers try to scare residents into believing that Black and brown kids have launched a concerted and organized campaign to steal (unlocked) cars and wreak havoc in neighborhoods.

It’s untrue, of course. And if I were among the residents Republicans are targeting, which I’m comfortably not, I’d find it insulting that my elected officials think speaking to the tribal instinct in me is a sufficient enough campaign strategy to secure re-election.

It’s why a predator like Brock Turner, the Stanford University athlete who was convicted of sexually assaulting a young woman behind a dumpster, can garner empathy from the trial judge in his case. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” said Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, adding that he didn’t believe Turner would be “a danger to others” — even though he already had been.

It’s why an 18-year-old white male like Rittenhouse can drive from one city to another, be armed for a fight, kill two people, injure another, and be treated like a prodigal son who made an honest mistake in an act of mere self-defense. Over the course of the trial, as the court disallowed words of empathy for the shooting victims and offered space for a tearful killer to plead his case, I’ve been reminded of how willing our nation is to offer the benefit of the doubt to some while clanking a prison-cell door and throwing away the key for others. Rittenhouse was acquitted on all charges by a 12-person jury on Nov. 19. 

Across the board, active biases like these are easy to spot but hard to tackle. According to Iliana Pujols, policy director with the Connecticut Justice Alliance (CTJA), that’s partly because battles over ideological rhetoric are hard to win.

“It’s a really hard fight because we’re up against racist ideas,” she said. “Not just actions.”

“I think this is a perfect time to compare the issues we’re seeing in Connecticut to Kenosha,” Pujols said, “because it’s an empathy issue. The Republican Party doesn’t know where these kids are coming from. They can’t relate to them.”

After hosting a number of focus groups they call “vision sessions” in West Hartford to shine a light on issues impacting urban youth, Pujols said it’s clear that those with privilege or in power are making decisions based on a lack of information and predisposed beliefs about youth from places like Waterbury, Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport.

“Everyone’s eager to invest in crime prevention now, but that’s only because the problem, small as it may be, is coming into their neighborhoods,” she said.

That thin border between the inner city and the suburb is often highly policed to ensure there isn’t crime creeping into places where it “doesn’t belong.” Policies to beat city crimes back into the downtown area or low-income neighborhoods are all erected in the spirit of security theater, suggesting that as long as the families with the largest lawns feel safe, that’s a job well done.

I’m eager to see the common-sense solutions elected officials are always talking about — the ones that take facts, research and data into account when crafting policies and allocating funds to address the state’s problems. Right now, both parties are falling short of the call for actual solutions. The ones on the table look like New Haven Mayor Justin Eliker’s big brother-style plan to spend $3.8 million on citywide surveillance cameras — which will likely result in a whole lot of watching crime happen rather than crime prevention, or Gov. Ned Lamont’s vague doubling-down on harsher punishments for youthful offenders with no substantive details. 

Pujols said she thought Lamont, during an October press conference, all but blamed a kid for his own death after he was killed by gunfire while riding in the back seat of a stolen car. At that event, Lamont cited stricter expectations for probation, GPS tracking for ankle bracelets and secure juvenile detention facilities as solutions to these types of crimes, suggesting that if those tactics had been employed in this case, the teen might still be alive.

If we’re taking a worst of both worlds approach to reducing crime and supporting inner-city youth, the fruits of that labor will look like prison bloat and increased crime. These, among other tactics by elected officials around the state, are overreactions at best. At worst, they’re money pits on the taxpayers’ dime that won’t actually work.

We know what works – community investment, credible messengers, focused deterrents that target specific youth and surround them with support.

Mike Lawlor, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, former prosecutor, legislator, and former justice advisor for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said when police partner with community leaders and clergy to identify kids and work with them one-on-one, rates of petty crimes organically fall.

But, he said, a little more personal responsibility could also save the state millions and avoid funneling Black and brown youths into the justice system.

“If every person across the state locked their doors tonight, this problem would be over by tomorrow,” he said “It’s totally a good idea to invest in prevention programs. But I don’t think this will have a big impact on auto thefts and shootings.”

Lawlor said overall crime is down in Connecticut, which has the fourth-lowest murder rate in the country, according to FBI statistics. This remains true for most crimes. But the area where there’s a clear uptick is car thefts. Unsurprisingly, that’s the case across the country. In fact, Lawlor says, most developed countries have seen an incline in this type of crime over the last 18 or so months.

“Assuming these numbers go down,” Lawlor said, “I think it’s going to have a lot to do with the ending of the pandemic. Because almost all this stuff seems to be totally related to the pandemic.”

To Lawlor, these patterns seem to indicate that as the pandemic eases, so too will the modest spike in these kinds of crimes, which may be the result of youth having idle hands and time – something we’ve all suffered from since March 2020.

“Whatever this is seems to be national in scope,” he said. “What things do we know of that are national in scope that happened little more than a year go? The pandemic and the George Floyd incident. If it were just happening in Connecticut or a few states, you might have the argument that it’s got something to do with somebody’s policies.”

Lawlor’s assessment is that party affiliation for a state and/or city’s leadership doesn’t impact the rates of these crimes — meaning red cities and towns, inside red states that are “tough on crime,” are facing the same modest spikes in auto thefts. Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and West Virginia are just a few that fit that description.

But fact-based reassurances don’t win elections. Campaigning on data and research isn’t enough to motivate voters. And no matter how crime rates change, we won’t see progress if we can’t dislodge the belief that some kids are just more jailable than others.

Mercy A. Quaye | Columnist

Mercy A. Quaye writes a monthly column called Sightlines for CT Mirror and is the editor of CT Mirror's Community Editorial Board. In 2015 she founded and continues to lead The Narrative Project, a mission-driven communications consulting group providing communications support to non-profit organizations throughout the state. Born and raised in New Haven, Mercy has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Public Relations, Social Media and Applied Communications, both from Quinnipiac University. Her work experience includes roles as a columnist for Hearst Connecticut, Adjunct Professor of Digital Journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, radio show host, and communications specialist for advocacy, community, and educational organizations.