Column By John Murray

A head-on collision December 2nd involving a stolen Audi station wagon operated by a repeat juvenile offender, and a Waterbury Police Department SUV, has reignited the call for a special session in the State Legislature to close a loophole that allows juveniles to repeatedly swipe cars with little consequence.

The calls for juvenile justice reform ring loud and clear from the Republican Party in Connecticut, Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo, and from Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary.

Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo

Although it might appear to be a partisan issue, upon close scrutiny, it’s not that simple. Mayor O’Leary is a Democrat, Chief Spagnolo is non-partisan, and there are many conservative and moderate Democrats in the state – including many in the Waterbury delegation – that have publicly stated they are in favor of a special session to tackle the issue. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont indicated this Autumn that something needed to be done and he was not opposed to the legislature going into special session.

Lamont has announced he is seeking a second term as governor and common sense suggests he would be wise to defang the GOP by addressing this issue now, and not have it dominate the 2022 legislative session in Hartford. So why hasn’t it happened?

The Waterbury Observer will examine the issue from multiple angles in the next two weeks and attempt to shed light on a thorny subject that could swing the balance of political power in Connecticut in 2022.

1) We are going to focus on the problem from the perspective of law enforcement officers. The Observer conducted a two-hour interview with Chief Spagnolo last month, and he provided keen insight into his statement that a small group of car thieves is terrorizing greater Waterbury by abusing the current juvenile justice system.

2) We will explore the unique perspective Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary has on the issue. O’Leary spent 30 years in law enforcement – including five years as police chief – was instrumental in the rebirth of the Waterbury PAL Program, and is now the longest continuous serving mayor in Waterbury history (setting the record on December 2, 2021). What’s his take on the issue?

3) Where does the Waterbury delegation to Hartford stand on the issue of juvenile justice reform? We will contact all five state representatives (four Democrats and one Republican) and both state senators (one Republican and one Democrat) and get them on the record about juvenile justice reform, and try to understand why a special session has been so elusive.

4) There are loud voices in Connecticut, and in Waterbury, that want the legislature to address the issue by expanding programs and services that will address root causes of juvenile crime; including a lack of opportunity for many youth in impoverished Black and Brown neighborhoods. It’s a program and services approach instead of punishment, which they say hasn’t worked.

5) What is the best path forward? Punishment, programming or a mix of both? After walking around the issue from multiple angles, we will offer what we believe is a reasonable path forward for both the repeat juvenile offenders, and society at large.

When we reported about the collision on December 2nd we asked Observer readers “if juvenile justice reform was necessary? Should the state be investing more money in programs and activities for youth, or should Connecticut be doing both? Or nothing? What do you think Waterbury?”

We asked, and we got an earful (more than a 1000 comments). Here are a few….

John Leary – We need strict consequences with no exceptions and a path for rehabilitation for those who commit to getting on the right track.

Darnell JenningsIt’s not legislation. Just change the culture of the music they listen to. If you live around violence and all of the music you listen to talks of violence, then wallah, you get violence.

Lori Lombardi -Darnell Jennings it’s very sad. It’s not a race, it’s everywhere. Unfortunately the gangs are reaching out to the younger kids now.

Demetre Alshon ColesHonestly, when are adults going to take accountability? And no…it’s not just the parents’ responsibility. It takes a village. There’s no real, tangible effort put in for youth in the city but people complain about the outcome? When y’all are ready to break down the real psychology behind this, address the material conditions in which people live, and be persistent when it comes to reaching out to youth, that’s when things will change. Until then, we’ll be driving ourselves insane throwing countless dollars to “community policing” and pushing the problem to the State while people in Waterbury continue to suffer. This just doesn’t make sense.

Robert Anderson This screams for reform and holding these kids (and their parents if they are minors) accountable. We have one side of the legislature wanting to do something, including a special session to address this issue. We have another side who doesn’t seem to want to alienate their voting base by cracking down on juvenile crime. That should tell you all you need to know about the legislative majority and the governor.

Betsy Tassistro WelchIf property, cars, home invasion etc. of the politicians who are worrying about their political futures were invaded upon would they still feel the same way? Hopefully, they wouldn’t.

Emily CorteseYes the juvenile system needs to be reformed. If the juvenile is a repeat offender he/she is a danger to society and needs to be removed for a while. Counseling for the child and parents should be included.

Lisa NewellI think we should be asking *why* our youth are acting like this and be interrogating the effectiveness of our systems of safety and justice. It’s no illusion that we are handing our youth a broken world and little hope of a decent future. How can we be flippant and superficial about simply blaming their parents or thinking jail time will magically fix this? I bet most of us here commenting are over 40 or 50… we came up in a very different era but also quite violent in so many of the same ways. We should be asking our youth what they need in order to thrive and feel safe and hopeful. Ask your own kids this. Ask them what they think about this incident. Waterbury is not an easy place to grow up in, *especially* if the odds of your success are stacked against you according to race and/or class.

Laurie Joy Lisa Newell, I understand and hear what you are saying. The why here is important. When I consider these types of violent acts from our kids, I take into consideration such things as systemic trauma that compounds from generation to generation. I am reminded that hurt people, hurt people. I wonder about the health and well-being of parents and all that fallout entails. This violent response is so complex that it is almost impossible to find a place to start.

Hiedi Granoth-LaGasseKids need to be able to wait at their bus stop and not be in fear of the ones who choose to be thugs that know there is little or no consequences for their actions because people are more worried about “why” they are acting out than the harm they do to others who obey the laws.

Jacob Barbour I see a lot of comments pointing out the problems, but how many are actually putting their money and time into ideas that would keep these kids off the streets, or even give them some guidance? If it is in fact a lack of parenting, then are we going to stand in the gap to help these kids whose brains aren’t even fully developed yet? And I’m not saying that they aren’t responsible for their actions. I believe there should be harsher penalties than just a catch and release for sure. But let’s stop stating the obvious problems at hand, and let’s start using that time to find solutions for the future of this country.

Jennifer Wilkinson – It is out of control. The leaders of our state need to step up to the plate and stop worrying about offending anyone. These kids need to be held accountable for their actions and sadly all they get is a slap on the wrist and they are back at it in a few days. It’s just not Waterbury, it’s everywhere. I thought the Governor was going to call a special session but apparently that’s not happening. Good for Chief Spagnola for speaking out. If more leaders were like him, maybe society wouldn’t be in the mess that it is.

Phil GuayI’m sure the endless stream of young people who turn to crime has nothing to do with Waterbury having a poverty rate of double the national average, and being economically depressed for 30+ years.

Katherine NicholeThese kids didn’t raise themselves. Change starts at home. Hold parents accountable.

Jennifer Yaroshevich-Ortiz – This is some straight mess. No punishments, no detentions, no residentials. Probation no longer has teeth. These kids are terrorizing teachers, whole school communities. Meanwhile kids that want to do the right thing have to worry that their peers will rob them on their way to school!? I cannot.

Christina CevallosReform and positive outlets in the community need to be established. There needs to be consequences to actions, but also greater resources put into helping these juveniles turn their lives around.

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