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Connecticut Approves Crime-Reducing Juvenile Justice Bills

The House approved a bill that will speed up juvenile arraignments, extend hold times for youths and allow GPS monitoring for repeat offenders. But some worry the tough-on-crime approach is ineffective.

(TNS) — State legislators voted overwhelmingly on Thursday, April 28, for proposed changes in Connecticut’s juvenile justice laws that are designed to target repeat criminals and reduce crime.

The bill speeds up arraignments for juveniles, allows youths to be held for eight hours instead of the current six hours as the suspect’s criminal history is being investigated, and allows global positioning system (GPS) monitoring for repeat criminals while charges are still pending, among other provisions.

After a detailed debate, the state House of Representatives voted 129-17 with five members absent. The opposition came from 17 liberal Democrats in a vote after 9:15 p.m.

Democrats said that concerns about crime have been overblown because crime has been trending downward statewide and Connecticut ranks as the fourth-safest state in the nation. They rejected a “get-tough-on-crime’' approach that they said did not work in the past as criminals need to be rehabilitated in order to continue living their lives.

But Republicans countered that car thefts and other crimes have been increasing in various spots around the state, charging that the problems have been exacerbated by the police accountability law that was strongly opposed by chiefs and rank-and-file officers.

Rep. Laura Devlin, a Fairfield Republican who is running for lieutenant governor, said that her suburban constituents “certainly feel a whole lot less safe’' than they did in the past.

“I wonder if we would have taken action sooner how many lives we could have saved,’' she said. “Are the programs working? Are we getting results? ... We need to look at what we are spending and if we are making a difference.’'

Rep. Jason Perillo, a Shelton Republican, said a listener would be unaware of crime while listening to many speakers at the Capitol.

“The fact, Mr. Speaker, is we do have a crime problem, and we have the headlines to prove it,’' Perillo said on the House floor. “Here’s a myth. The myth is that this bill is going to fix that problem. ... Let’s all understand. This bill is not going to fix the problem of crime. We’re going to read the paper in three months, six months, a year, and we’re going to see those same headlines.’'

Perillo added, “We have tied the hands of police officers that are trying to protect the residents of the state. I certainly don’t see our law enforcement officers prioritized as we have done nothing to help them. ... This bill really could have made a difference. We’ve lost that opportunity. It’s a shame.’’

The 22-page bill would allow longer prison sentences for serious crimes for young criminals - increasing the maximum to 60 months, up from 30 months, and allowing for a judge’s discretion.

Rep. Geraldo Reyes, a deputy Speaker who is the leader of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said police officers in his family would say it is wrong to believe that officers are not doing their jobs because of the state’s police accountability law.

“We obviously have to do something because we need to save lives,’' said Reyes, a Waterbury Democrat. “Personally, I’ve gone to too many young funerals. ... I do hear gunshots in my neighborhood. ... It doesn’t make me rest easy. ... It could be you. It could be me. We’re just sitting in our homes.’'

Rep. Robyn Porter, a New Haven Democrat who opposed the bill, said that crime has been an issue in her hometown for years.

“Increased policing has not helped,’' Porter said on the House floor. “We don’t talk about the root causes. ... My son went to prison. I never thought that would be my testimony. ... Parents that are absent. Children that are left to themselves. ... Kids are going to be kids, especially when there are no boundaries in place. ... This is something that I grew up with, and I’m over 50 years old. ... Everything we’ve done up to now has not worked.’'

Porter said that innocent victims can be injured by stray bullets in the cross-fire.

“I have to worry about being shot at my home, in my house,’' Porter said. “I’ve been living with this my entire life, and I think that what I say should carry some weight. ... I’m in the streets. I’m on the ground. I’m talking to these kids.’'

One of the key changes in the bill is that there will no longer be higher penalties for stealing a Rolls Royce in Greenwich than a lesser-value car. Instead, lawmakers said they were more concerned about targeting repeat offenders.

“If someone steals a Maserati, that is charged as a higher offense than a 15-year-old Toyota Camry in the west end of Bridgeport,’’ said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat. “This bill says a car theft is a car theft.’’

While saying he wanted more gun restrictions, Stafstrom said the bill is “a step in the right direction.’'

Rep. Joe de la Cruz, a Groton Democrat, said the worker shortage is caused in part because some youths have had trouble getting jobs due to their extensive criminal records.

“Look at the crime rate in Louisiana. Look at the crime rate in Texas,’' he said. “Shouldn’t their legislators be flying up to Connecticut to say, ‘How do you do it?’ ... We have better schools and better teachers. That’s how we solve crimes. ... We’re not going to solve it by being tough. I hope you know that.’'

While Republicans had input in the bipartisan bill, they continued to express concerns about crime.

“I will not agree that we are the safest state in the nation,’' said Rep. Craig Fishbein, the ranking House Republican on the judiciary committee. “We were four times the national average in increase - that’s not safety.’'

“Taking the cars out of the larceny schedule is very important,’' he said. “If someone steals four cars, and they’re all valued at $5,000 each, the charge is the same.’'

Rep. Anne Hughes, one of the leading liberals in the legislature, and others raised issues in opposition to the bipartisan bill.

“I am concerned about GPS monitoring of youth pre-adjudication’' while the charges are still pending, said Hughes, an Easton Democrat.

After a second car theft, a Superior Court judge will have the ability to order a child to be released into the custody of a parent by having a GPS monitor, rather than being sent to jail, Stafstrom said.

Hughes said she is concerned that “certain offenders get a slap on the wrist and other offenders, for the same issue, can get disproportionately impacted through GPS monitoring, which is traumatizing and distressing to a developing brain.’'

The bill will be a problem “for brown and black youth - let’s just state it for what it is,’' Hughes said on the House floor. “It has lifetime barriers. ... I understand this is a compromise, and ... without an equity study, we have no business promoting this bill.’'

The funding for the GPS monitoring is $1.4 million, but some lawmakers thought that was too high for the number of young criminals involved.

“If the offender is non-compliant with the GPS monitoring, there is a path to detention,’' Stafstrom said. “It provides the judge with the requisite discretion.’'

He said there is a higher chance for young criminals to commit more crimes “when kids go into prison, even for a short period of time.’'

Rep. Anthony Nolan, a Democrat who also works as a police officer, also had concerns about the GPS monitoring. He added that some officers pulled back on doing police work due to their opposition to the police accountability law.

“I find the GPS electronic devices to not be of any use other than to know when a kid goes in and out of the house,’' Nolan said on the House floor. “A GPS device does not stop crime. ... It’s definitely not something I would like to see arresting kids more and putting them in lock-up.’'

“Some say crime has gone up. Some say crime has gone down,’' Nolan said.

Rep. Chris Rosario, a Bridgeport Democrat, said there is a stigma for young people with a bulky GPS monitor that is obvious to rivals and others. An Apple watch or fitbit would be far less intrusive than a bulky ankle monitor, he said.

“He had a fanny-pack,’' Rosario said, describing . “It looked like a Gucci bag.’'

But Rep. Patrick Callahan, a New Fairfield Republican who was the victim of two car thefts, said the bill would provide accountability and help prove that a youth was not involved in a car theft because the GPS would show exactly where he was.

“It’s a great tool, an alternative to incarceration, and it helps kids,’' said Callahan, a probation officer for nearly 30 years. “This is a good amendment. It helps kids who have been in trouble once. It helps probation monitor them before it gets too bad. We can help the kids and help the victims of the crimes that have skyrocketed in recent years.’'

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