Story By John Murray

Triggered by an uptick in car thefts during the pandemic, juvenile justice reform became the hottest political debate in Connecticut this past year.

Was the increase due to bored teenagers with idle time from COVID lockdowns and school closings?

Or was the increase due to a lenient juvenile system that allowed a handful of teenagers to terrorize a community because they knew they could steal a car and be back out on the streets a day later with little consequence?

That a majority of car thefts were by black and brown skinned teenagers, from urban neighborhoods, injected the explosive element of race into the debate. When the car thefts moved from the cities to the suburbs, Republicans demanded tougher consequences, while many Democrats called for programs and resources to guide and mentor at-risk juveniles. The approach to dealing with the crisis varied by geography, life experience and skin color. While it’s low-hanging fruit for elected officials to demand tougher laws, a look back at America’s fifty year War On Crime shows that mass incarceration was a failure.

What do we do? Lock the kids up, or try and provide resources and programs to keep them off the streets?

After a long emotional debate, the House of Representatives on April 28th, voted 129-17 on a compromise that neither political party was happy with, but moved the issue forward with promises to continue addressing the crisis in the next legislative session. The bill targeted loopholes that repeat offenders were exploiting, and is designed to reduce crime in Connecticut.

So what does it do? The bill speeds up arraignments for youths and allows juveniles to be detained for eight hours (now it’s six hours) as the person’s criminal history is investigated. The bill also allows for GPS monitoring ankle bracelets for repeat offenders (while the first charges are still pending). The bill increases possible prison sentences for serious juvenile crimes from 30 to 60 months , the sentence to be determined by a judge.

The legislature had the daunting task of addressing a symptom (car thefts), instead of tackling the root cause of why a majority of car thefts occur in urban neighborhoods by black and brown skinned teenagers. Why are they stealing cars? Why is the neighborhood impoverished? Why is there a lack of opportunity for these teenagers. Some legislators balked at punitive consequences for youth and demanded investment and additional programs in the neighborhoods.

Moments before the vote Majority Leader Jason Rojas from East Hartford made a closing argument for supporting the bill.

“I know the pain that a debate like this causes all of my colleagues, but in particular my colleagues in the Black and Puerto Rican caucus. You have to forgive us for being skeptical about the get tough on crime approach.”

Rojas said, “We had a long debate on a mental health bill. These are the types of things we should be doing if we actually want to prevent crime, because we have a number of kids who have been traumatized by poverty, traumatized by crime, traumatized by a system of incarceration that disproportionately impacts black and brown men and women. Men have been locked up for generations because we felt getting tough on crime was the way to address a drug war.”

Rejecting calls for tougher prison sentences, Rojas said, “we’ve been down this road before to satisfy political needs. We have to stop doing that. We have decades of data to show what those kinds of approaches on policy to dealing with crime have impacted families and in particular, how they’ve impacted black and brown families.”

Rojas praised the balance approach the bill that addressed a very complex issue. “We’re looking at investing in mental health services to address the trauma that has been experienced by entire communities of color and choosing to move in a more humane way that can really meet the needs of our community and actually address this issue.”

Republican Minority Leader Vincent Candelora of Guilford said it was frustrating to listen to the narrative that Republicans were trying to incarcerate children.

“The public expects us to put more accountability on the books,” Candelora said. “But we all know when when there is not a consequence to an action. Children will just repeat those actions.”

State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr. of Waterbury is the chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus in Hartford and said they had a lively debate in the caucus about the best path forward. “It was about 50-50 in our caucus,” Reyes said. ‘And I can understand the arguments of those that opposed this bill. But to me we had to do something to address the issue.”

Reyes voted in favor of the bill, as did the entire delegation from Waterbury.

State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr.

Reyes said he was impressed with the way the compromise came together. “No one got exactly what they wanted,” he said, “but six months of juvenile justice negotiations, with two police officers in the discussion, they managed to find a compromise that both sides could live with.”

There were some strong objections to the ankle monitors, but Reyes said it would only impact a very small number of juveniles. “Some people got stuck in the weeds about putting a monitor on kids, which is legal today. As a parent I can legally put a monitor on my child to track where they are, but this is only going to impact the worst of the worst offenders, and we should know where they are.”

Reyes said his district is greatly affected by violence, in particular gun violence. “Our legislative work here should be about saving lives,” Reyes said. “Young men and women who have made mistakes need to be held accountable.”

For much of the past year Waterbury has been central in the debate. Several high-profiled incidents involved offenders stealing car after car with impunity. Police Chief Fred Spagnolo called for immediate legislative action last Autumn.

Then a head-on collision December 2nd involving a stolen Audi station wagon operated by a repeat juvenile offender, and a Waterbury Police Department SUV, reignited the call for a special session in the State Legislature to close juvenile justice loopholes.

The calls for reform rang loud and clear through Connecticut, with Governor Ned Lamont in support of action. It didn’t happen because insiders who know the legislative process knew nothing could be passed as a delegation from New Haven (which included Senate Majority leader Martin Looney) was opposed to ramming legislation through in a special session. They wanted serious negotiations and compromise, and after six months, that’s exactly what happened.

The bill still needs passage in the Senate and Governor Lamont’s signature to become law, but insiders say it is expected to pass. So what does Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo think of the legislation?

Waterbury Chief of Police Fred Spagnolo

“Definitely a step forward,” Spagnolo said. ” We need to continue to monitor the kids deeply involved in recidivism and serious crime and see what other areas we can look to affect a change that will benefit them and our communities.”

Reyes spoke about his relationship with Spagnolo on the floor of the House. ” I have a personal relationship with my chief of police,” Reyes said. “We speak all the time. The items that they’ve asked us to do, to try to help them in dealing with juvenile justice juvenile crimes. I believe that one step at a time we have given not all of it, but most of it.”