Senators gave final approval Wednesday night to a bill intended to address juvenile crimes by making modest changes to the judicial system in an attempt to hold them accountable for breaking the law.
The bill is at least a year in the making. Republicans and Democrats have each held a slew of press conferences on car thefts since a spike in such crimes earlier in the pandemic.
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said some legislators framed the stolen car spike as a crisis, despite data indicating otherwise which, in turn, influenced the public’s understanding of the issue.
“I don’t think there’s a victory here today. I think that we have gotten here because of a conversation that people engaged in before they knew the facts on the ground,” said Winfield, who called himself a “reluctant proponent” of the legislation. “We do have a responsibility to tell people what’s actually happening, and then allow them to think about how they want to respond. During this last two years, that’s not always been what’s happened.”
Data shared by Ken Barone, associate director for the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at the University of Connecticut, shows that there were thousands of cars stolen annually in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven from 1990 to at least 2010, an average that declined substantially from 2011 to 2020.
Barone’s data indicated car thefts are migrating from cities and towns where they historically were the most prevalent, to smaller, typically suburban communities. Over the last decade, motor vehicle thefts increased by 150% in towns with fewer than 25,000 people but decreased by 18% in towns with more than 100,000 people.
Car thefts increased in 2020 compared to the historic lows from 2019. Preliminary data provided to the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee last month indicates a decrease in stolen cars in 2021, lending support to the theory that the spike during the pandemic’s first year was due to widespread societal disruptions, including widespread school closures and a pause on after-school programming.
Winfield said crime is hardly a new phenomenon for those who live in under-resourced communities, but legislators did not act with urgency until it migrated to wealthier communities.
“And then when the crime moved up the highway and went to other communities, all of a sudden, we have an issue,” Winfield said. “You can’t have it both ways. Either you have an issue, as a member of a body that takes care of the whole state, when the crime is higher, or you don’t have the issue when crime is lower.”
The bill attempts to walk a tight line between holding young people accountable for breaking the law and not harming them by transferring their cases to the adult system or keeping them incarcerated, which research shows tends to hurt youth more than help them.
It would shorten the time before young people first appear in court, give Superior Court judges the option to put minors on GPS monitoring if they’ve repeatedly broken the law, and broaden law enforcement’s access to minors’ records and increase the time they can detain children while awaiting a detention order.
The bill passed the House on April 28 with a vote of 129-17 over the concerns of Republicans who didn’t think the bill went far enough and Democrats who worried it would disproportionately harm Black and brown children. Despite the concern, Republicans were unanimous in their support of the measure. All the no votes came from Democrats.
The vote in the Senate was 35-1, with the lone dissenting vote coming from Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport.
Senate Republicans unsuccessfully floated an amendment they said would address root causes of crime, a holistic approach attempting to reduce crime by ensuring young people have what they need to keep them from breaking the law in the first place. Republicans, who included the proposals in their “A Better Way to a Safer Connecticut” plan, said it would strengthen workforce development, bolster public housing and improve education across the state.
But the amendment also would have transferred more children’s criminal cases to the adult court, an approach Republicans said was necessary to deal with minors who repeatedly break the law and to protect the public from violent behavior. The measure also would have rolled back portions of the police accountability bill lawmakers passed after George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
“When criminals feel there are no consequences, they continue on,” said Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon. “We need to get to the root of the problem. We need to figure out what’s going wrong from the onset, and we need to solve it.”
Republicans portrayed the amendment as a boost to the state’s economy by strengthening its workforce. Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said their proposal was a comprehensive effort to deal with crime, whereas the underlying bill merely deals with what happens after someone already winds up in the justice system.
“Any individual that becomes incarcerated, in my opinion, is too many,” he said. “This is needed to make Connecticut a safer Connecticut.”
Winfield said he is not opposed to the concept behind the amendment — a comprehensive, holistic approach to reducing crime — but could not support it because to do so would kill the underlying bill.
“There’s a lot of money attached there,” Winfield said. “None of that money is in the budget.”
But the concepts underpinning the Republican amendment were not new, Winfield said. He and other advocates have been calling for years for a comprehensive response to crime, when crime was higher in under-resourced parts of the state.
“People weren’t rallying around that at the time when crime was where I said it was,” Winfield said. “We have this weird thing we do where there’s an exploration and we find new land, and then we claim that we were the first there. People were already there. People are acting like they found a new land and a new way to do things; people are already there.”