CT can’t ‘arrest our way out’ of juvenile crime, experts say

Photo of Josh LaBella
A forum organized by state representatives Jennifer Leeper (D-132) and Cristin McCarthy Vahey (D-133) saw panelists discussing their perspectives on criminal justice for juveniles.

A forum organized by state representatives Jennifer Leeper (D-132) and Cristin McCarthy Vahey (D-133) saw panelists discussing their perspectives on criminal justice for juveniles.

/ Josh LaBella / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — Juvenile justice experts in the state agree that more needs to be done to prevent minors from ending up in the criminal justice system, but largely disagree on what should happen after a minor is caught doing a crime.

“It will be challenging, from a policy perspective, to arrest our way out of this problem,” Ken Barone, the associate director of the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, said at forum on juvenile crime held in Fairfield Thursday night.

Six panelists involved in the criminal justice system debated their perspectives on juvenile crime and how to address it — with car thefts being a central theme of the discussion. The panel was organized by state Reps. Jennifer Leeper and Cristin McCarthy Vahey, both D-Fairfield.

The police officers in attendance said there have to be consequences for these crimes, while advocates said children need support and punishment cannot always result in a positive change for a child who is in crisis.

Barone said context is important when looking at crime data. He noted there was an uptick in crime in May 2020, as lockdowns due to the pandemic became a widespread policy across the country.

He said there were more auto thefts across the U.S. and Europe, with a 35 percent increase in Connecticut between 2019 and 2020. Notably, he said, 2019 saw the fewest number of auto thefts ever recorded in the state.

The FBI reported 5,452 car thefts in 2019.

“It’s important to understand that, when looking at auto thefts in 2020 compared to 2019, you’re comparing it to the lowest year on record,” he said. “The highest year on record was 1991, when there was just over 26,000 cars stolen in the state of Connecticut that year.”

In 2020, Barone said, there were approximately 8,400 car thefts in the state. He said most of the increase is due to cars being left unlocked and key fobs being left inside the vehicle.

Juvenile involvement

When looking at juveniles, Barone said people under the age of 18 made up only 241, or 36 percent, of the 671 car theft-related arrests last year. That percentage is nearly the same as it was in 2019.

Barone also noted most juvenile justice reforms in Connecticut, such as raising the age of juvenile offenders to 18 and changing how long juveniles could be detained by law enforcement, occurred about a decade ago. He said there is misinformation about the justice system having an inability to lock up high-risk youth.

But two Fairfield police officers offered a different perspective. Detectives Beth Leetch and George Buckmir both said the last couple of years have been some of the most challenging of their 24 years on the force. They said the courts will not take low-level crimes such as shoplifting or possession of alcohol, which they said is emboldening young offenders.

“There’s really no teeth,” Leetch said, later adding that parents come to her stressed about what their children’s behavior could lead to.

Buckmir, who investigates car thefts in Fairfield, said there had been 101 such thefts in Fairfield in 2021 as of Thursday night. One issue, he said, is the burden of proof is higher than it used to be, and that, along with lax laws, is enabling kids.

“In a lot of these cases, I know who the kids are. I know who stole that car. I just can’t prove it,” he said. “When we talk about proof in the juvenile justice system, we’re not talking about probable cause. We’re talking about proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Buckmir said the cars being stolen can end up being used in more serious crimes.

Buckmir said minors arrested on theft charges are often back on the street days later.

“The juvenile court system does not give real life consequences,” he said. “The revolving door doesn’t work.”

Buckmir said fear of punishment is a great motivator, and called for some form of change, be it through the legislature or judicial system, that creates more stringent consequences.

Addressing root causes

Iliana Pujols, policy director of the The Connecticut Justice Alliance, an organization that works to keep children and youth out of the justice system, said it is rare for people to sit down with young people who have committed crimes to talk about solutions.

“I did a lot stuff when I was a teenager, and now that I think of it, a lot of what I did that was bad was because I was going through a lot of stuff,” she said.

Pujols said reforms that have happened in Connecticut, including the closure of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, were good things, but need to be followed up with funding for other types of programming.

Programs such as Streetsafe or Our Piece of the Pie, which offer youth with support, do good work but are not funded as much as they should be, Pujols said.

Another important aspect when discussing the juvenile justice system, she said, is noting who is primarily impacted by it.

“We’re talking about primarily children of color,” she said. “It’s not news to anybody that, unfortunately, these cities such as New Haven, Hartford, Waterbury and Bridgeport, have been primarily underfunded for years.”

Pujols said talking to teens, instead of looking to punish, is a good solution. She added that wanting to charge children as adults while also acknowledging that their brains are not fully developed are conflicting ideas.

Brittany LaMarr, a justice adviser with the Connecticut Justice Alliance, said she was arrested several times as a teenager and eventually ended up in the adult system, which left her with consequences that will follow her for the rest of her life. She said she did not change until she was put into programs with intensive case management that addressed her root issues.

“I excavated the reasons I interacted with the world the way I that I did,” she said. “There were reasons why I was going through life unable to think about how my actions were causing harm to somebody else. I was still operating at that lower level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I didn’t have those basic needs met.”

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology that uses a five-tier model of human needs. Food and clothing make up the bottom, moving up to safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization.

LaMarr said incarcerating young people just kicks the can down the road. She said there needs to be an investment into programs that help solve the root issues of crime.

“I think it’s extremely important that we don’t just discard young people who are committing offenses as individuals who aren’t deserving or worthy of a successful future,” she said.

John Santa, a Fairfield resident and the vice chairman of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, said crime issues begin in poverty and ignorance.

When one attendee asked how Fairfield residents could make the justice system better locally, Pujols said it is not something that can be narrowed down to one town.

“That’s where we come into a big challenge. It’s always my town or your town or this town, or red or blue,” she said. “The reality is, we’re talking about kids as a whole. It becomes a challenge when we talk about how to make it better, because the system is not just. It’s racially inequitable. It’s not created to serve any sort of form of rehabilitation... and the minute you touch base with the adult system it becomes even worse.”

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com