In a decisive vote by the Connecticut General Assembly, a bill that would place all 16- and 17-year-old offenders under the jurisdiction of the state’s juvenile courts came one step closer to becoming law.
The bill passed by a vote of 28-12 in the Joint Judiciary Committee on Monday and will now be considered by the Appropriations Committee. Under the provisions of the bill, particularly heinous crimes could still addressed in adult courts. Abby Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, a group that has lobbied in favor of the legislation, said she expects the vote of the Appropriations Committee to be more contentious due to the costs associated with the proposed measures.
“A lot of people agree with the bill philosophically but don’t want to spend the money,” she said.
State Sen. David Cappiello, a Republican on the committee from the 24th Senate district, said he voted against the bill because it does not deal with the greater inconsistencies in how the state laws generally treat 16- and 17-year-olds.
“We are consistently trying to deal with issues of this nature on a piecemeal basis,” he said. “In one case they are an adult, in another, they are a child. We should be looking at every single one of these statues regarding 16- and 17-year-olds.”
Cappiello cited the law allowing 16- and 17-year-old girls to receive abortions without notifying their parents as an example of a situation in which the state treats older juveniles as adults.
But Ward 28 Alderwoman Babz Rawls-Ivy said the legislation will correct decades of ineffective prosecution and incarceration of juveniles.
“Putting [minors] in adult courts and adult prisons is not the right answer,” she said.
State Rep. Robert Farr, a Republican from the 19th district who also sits on the judiciary committee, said the problems concerning the treatment of juvenile offenders under the state justice system will not be solved by simply moving them to the juvenile justice system. The additional load will only further tax an already strained juvenile system, he said.
“It doesn’t make sense if we say we fixed the problem and we just dump them into juvenile courts,” Farr said. “We will end up making it worse for even younger people.”
Farr, who has represented children in court, said that under the Youthful Offenders statute adopted last year, 16- and 17-year-olds can receive the same services and benefits — such as a sealed record — afforded to those in the juvenile system. Overhauling and constructing new facilities to handle a doubled case load would be an ineffective and costly way to deal with problems, he said.
“Until you have facilities, why are you bumping kids into that system?” he said. “We are moving deck chairs on the Titanic.”
But lobbyists who support the bill said the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term costs. Theresa Sgobba LAW ’07, who works with the lobbying organization Connecticut Voices for Children through the Legislative Advocacy Clinic at the Yale Law School, said that the reform would eventually result in a more cost-effective and humane system.
“It will cost on the front end to make this change, but in the long run it will ultimately create cost savings, because the juveniles will have a decreased chance of re-offending,” Sgobba said. “We want to bring Connecticut in line with other states. The juvenile system is designed to be not as punitive. It is rehabilitative.”
Connecticut is currently one of only three states – along with New York and North Carolina – to automatically try 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults. Anderson said an average of approximately 13,000 juveniles are tried as adults in Connecticut annually.