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EDITORIAL: State Senate Republicans' carrot-and-stick reform

The Day - 10/21/2021

Oct. 21—Republicans in the state Senate took a new tack toward reshaping the juvenile justice system last week with a detailed proposal they call "A Better Way to a Safer Connecticut." The concept echoes some of the caucus's objections to provisions in the police accountability measures passed and already amended in the past year, as well as in earlier statutes. It would break ground on an overarching system for guiding youth away from the lure of crime with the hope of post-high school training in high-paying trades. Its fundamental motive, however, is to respond to the party's perceived fears of carjackings and other property crimes committed by those under 18, while linking such crimes with the deadly violence that has upsurged in some of the state's largest cities.

That would be a tall order for any single piece of legislation. It would amount to social engineering on an order that is usually associated with wishful progressive Democrats. Like the Democrats when they have ambitious but not fully formed ideas, the Republican leadership seems to be floating a trial balloon to gauge the forecast. This is not yet a bill; it's a proposal without a price tag and an attempt to include something for everyone. It's hard to say whether they are primarily floating sterner juvenile justice or a jobs training program, but it's clear one aim is rolling back police accountability.

Republican Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, and Leader Pro Tempore Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, are championing the proposal, which they say was developed after consultation with police chiefs, probation officers and professional counselors. The thinking behind it derives in part from Senator Kelly's experiences with the former state Department of Income Maintenance, now Social Services.

The juvenile justice system in Connecticut applies to one who has not reached the 18th birthday. Among the salient changes proposed are:

—require next-day court appearance for a juvenile who is arrested, both to start services and preclude additional offenses

—make court detention orders available to law enforcement and adult courts, with written notice as to the reason if detention status is denied; allow exceptions to the current 6-hour detention limit before a court order is received

—require around-the-clock GPS monitoring of a juvenile arrested for a violent crime or repeat offense

—mandate fingerprinting in felony and Class A misdemeanor cases of crimes against persons

—revise rules for transfer to the Youthful Offender docket of adult court

—reword the law to base detention decisions on the "best interest" of both the juvenile and society — not either/or.

The proposal also seeks to revise recently adopted accountability standards for police to:

—revise "qualified immunity" to allow it to be a defense except when an officer acts with extreme indifference to human life

—permit certain consent searches

—broaden the use of stopsticks

—clarify "duty to intervene" language to limit an officer's criminal liability to cases in which another officer commits a crime.

It also advocates addressing recidivism and improving public housing, a jobs pipeline, and the Explorers program for young people curious about law enforcement careers.

The Republicans' proposal deserves attention for what it identifies as predictors of juvenile crime — truancy, trauma, housing projects that limit the presence of fathers, among others — although there are no surprises there. It studiously avoids mention of race as a factor, although the state's juvenile justice system specifically deals with the disproportionate number of non-white youths in the system. And while it legitimately catalogs the many factors that create a climate for juvenile crime, it is so broad as to render itself academic.

What kind of structure would have to be built — and what existing services revamped or dismantled — to coordinate as speedily as the authors call for among the police, courts, counselors and various services to the person in custody, family, witnesses and others affected by the alleged crime? It is not clear that the authors have consulted with the judiciary on all of that. As an example, the idea of making counseling quickly available for "witnesses" to decrease the likelihood of retaliatory crime seems to conflict with the need for police to interview witnesses before their memories change or tampering occurs.

While the authors have labored to present both encouragement for youth to avoid crime and more law enforcement tools for when they don't, this proposal is really about immediate, tougher enforcement and possible, way-in-the-future better conditions. There is no attempt to estimate costs, but we know what happens when the legislature is enjoined to keep on funding something. Very often, a good idea just quietly dies.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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