This story has been updated.
A prominent youth justice organization in Connecticut is calling on lawmakers to increase the minimum age of arrest from 10 to 14 during next year’s legislative session.
The Connecticut Justice Alliance made the call during a virtual press conference on Monday, which was announced as part of the group’s legislative priorities for 2024. The current minimum age of arrest — despite an increase from 7 to 10 as recent as 2021 — “is still too low and needs to be raised,” said Christina Quaranta, the policy organization’s executive director.
“If a child is committing a crime at that age, it’s likely that they have a huge unmet need that needs to be addressed,” said Quaranta, adding that the question people should ask is, “Where do we need to improve our behavioral health and mental health system for young people and the resources that are available for them and their families?”
Children from ages 10 to 17 at the time of an arrest are typically processed in Connecticut’s juvenile court system. Minors who are 15 or older and charged with what are recognized as “serious juvenile offenses,” such as murder, are either automatically transferred to adult court or may be transferred there at the discretion of a prosecutor.
By law, a Class A or B felony or arson murder could trigger a child’s automatic transfer to adult court if the state finds that, in part, “the best interests of the child and the public will not be served by maintaining the case in the superior court for juvenile matters.”
Children spared from the judicial system have typically received services from either the children’s behavioral health services system, youth service bureaus or a juvenile review board, or they have received services in their communities.
During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers introduced two different bills that would have increased the minimum age of arrest in Connecticut; one would have raised it from 10 to 12, while the other would have taken it to 14. Neither bill received a public hearing.
The bills were proposed just two years after Gov. Ned Lamont signed Public Act No. 21-174, a law that, among other things, raised the minimum age of arrest from 7 to 10. The original version of that legislation sought to increase the age to 12.
The Connecticut Justice Alliance’s renewed call to increase the minimum age of arrest to 14 comes as the state, ranked ninth in the country for child well-being, continues searching for answers on how to best assist the most vulnerable children and young people placed under its care.
The cost of detaining a young person in a residential center is $1,347 per day, according to the policy organization’s new report. The cost of 60 days of detention equates to $80,820, while the cost for an average stay of roughly 185 days is $281,080.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a bill mandating that state officials develop a plan for the mandatory pre-arrest diversion of low-risk children — those who have committed a minor crime, such as simple trespass or breach of peace, for the first or second time. Pre-arrest diversion is the process of connecting a person with certain programs or outside assistance as an alternative to an arrest. The legislation also requires that the Judicial Branch review and update plans for the transition of all children in the Department of Correction’s custody to its custody.
They approved a measure that deems a child’s admission, confession or statement to police inadmissible or involuntary if it was obtained by way of an officer lying to the child about evidence, misrepresenting the law or making false promises of leniency.
Legislators also gave the final nod to broadening parole eligibility to include certain people serving long sentences for crimes they committed before turning 21. Experts and advocates saw the move as further acknowledgement of the developing brains of young adults and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which struck down mandatory life imprisonment without parole for youth.
And earlier this month, legislators heard testimony from various officials on the state’s response to a Harwinton group home that’s facing allegations of physical and sexual abuse, a lack of supervision of kids and insufficient therapeutic care for children with histories of severe trauma.
Quaranta said in an interview with the Connecticut Mirror on Monday that the conversations about child well-being are connected with her organization’s renewed effort to increase the minimum age of arrest.
“I’m hoping to leverage some of that and really humanize these children,” Quaranta said. “The same kids that we’re concerned about that are disconnected, disengaged in school, suffering with mental health issues. Instead of just thinking about what more programs can we give them or what more mental health help do they need, we should also be thinking about them in the juvenile system lens.”
Between 2010 and 2019, there were more than 2,000 court referrals for children under the age of 12, according to data from the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division. Each year, Black and Hispanic children made up the majority of referrals.
“We should be raising the age that they can be arrested at because we know that arrest causes all of these negative mental health, physical health outcomes,” Quaranta added.
Rep. Anthony Nolan, who serves on the legislature’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee, introduced the legislation earlier this year that would have increased the minimum age of arrest to 12.
The New London Democrat said in an interview Monday afternoon that he fully supports the Connecticut Justice Alliance’s proposal to raise the age to 14, though he believes it may need to increase gradually, starting with 12, given the legislature’s reputation for incremental progress.
“There should be no reason why a child that age should be getting arrested and going to jail or getting locked up,” said Nolan, who spent more than two decades as a New London police officer. “That’s the push for me trying to eliminate that from happening. It helps out the courts, it helps out the kids, it helps out the families. So less court referrals, investing more in diversionary programs … that’s the solution.”
Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, the West Hartford Democrat who helped propose the bill earlier this year to increase the minimum age of arrest to 14, said she views it as “one of those issues that we need to keep revisiting until we get to 18.”
The disconnect to getting it done, Gilchrest said, seems to be that some legislators focus solely on the crime and that there must be repercussions rather than asking, “Why would a child commit that crime?”
As an example, she described “them versus us” rhetoric by some officials during legislative debates about children and car thefts in recent years, also pointing out that the vast majority of people arrested for stealing cars weren’t children.
“Ten wasn’t even really a start for me,” said Gilchrest, who serves on both the JJPOC and the Judiciary Committee, about the minimum age of arrest. “I think because the level of education and how controversial an issue this is for folks, we need to do the chip-away strategy. And each year, come back. Continue to have the conversation; hopefully change hearts and minds and move this incrementally.”
Connecticut’s child advocate, Sarah Eagan, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Quaranta said that she prefers to start with raising the age to 14, which would put the state in line with the United Nations’ recommendation, but she’s willing to do what it takes to get there, even if it means incrementally.
“If we cannot push folks to do what is right and raise it to 14, and we have to start at 12, OK, well then, we’re going to have to continue that conversation and the education that needs to be done on why we have to get to 14,” she said.