NEWINGTON – Citizens, elected officials and state prosecutors can all agree on one thing: kid crime is a complicated problem with no easy solutions.
A community forum on juvenile crime was held in Town Hall Monday night. About 25 attendees included local residents, parents, former employees with the state’s criminal justice system and a handful of Newington officials. Guest speaker was Assistant Chief State’s Attorney Francis Carino, who gave an informative presentation before fostering an open discussion.
About 90 percent of teens who commit first-time offenses benefit from treatment programs, Carino said, adding that the minority are repeat offenders committing the heinous crimes.
“Locking kids up serves only a limited purpose; it’s not an end-all,” he said.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane spoke up at points throughout the meeting, which lasted well over three hours.
“After Fran’s 40 years and my 47 years in the criminal justice system, together we’ve seen a lot happen,” he said. “We’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth from one extreme to another.”
Striking a balance has never been an easy task, he pointed out.
Both Kane and Carino support the hands-on approach taken by Juvenile Review Boards (JRBs) – diversionary programs that kids are referred to before they ever step into court. There are currently 85 JRBs across the state, groups primarily composed of volunteers who handle teen criminal cases with offenders and their families. They are charged with the task of “sentencing” teens to community service specific to their crimes, residential treatment and other measures. They also provide families with ongoing support services. The more serious offenders are sent to adult court and imprisoned.
Attendee and Newington Mayor Roy Zartarian said he was “very troubled” by recent events, especially the case of a Hartford teen accused of fatally injuring a man with a stolen car.
“If these offenders feel they’re getting away with it they will repeat it,” the mayor said.
Lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would allow juvenile car thieves to undergo rehabilitation treatment instead of entering the court system. This legislation is awaiting a vote by the House of Representatives.
State Rep. Gary Turco, D-Newington, discussed this and other issues before the meeting, with Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, chairman of the state’s Public Safety and Security Committee.
“There needs to be a balance that I’m not sure we’ve struck yet as a state,” Turco said. “How can we provide these rehabilitation services while also giving stronger consequences to repeat offenders?”
Newington resident Terry Borjeson, who had a 40-year career in criminal justice and is now a part-time member of the state’s Pardon and Parole Board, condemned how youth sex offenders are handled, among other flaws in the system.
“There has to be a way of still doing the diversionary programs that work ... while corraling the kids that need to be corralled,” Borjeson said.
Towards the end of his presentation, Carino made suggestions for lawmakers and communities.
Judges should have the ability to extend treatment beyond the maximum 30 months currently allowed, he said. Victim impact panels could reach teens on an emotional level, to discourage them from future criminal behavior.
“Support your local JRBs,” Carino said, adding that educators might consider adding a “consequences of crime” unit to elementary school curriculum.
“Let’s educate kids early, well before they even think of committing the crime,” he explained.
The former administration of Gov. Dannel Malloy closed the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown. This was a bone of contention among many attendees, and some former employees who believed in the success of the CJTS. Kane and Carino advocated for its reopening, though they said that wouldn’t be an end-all, either.
Kane also urged concerned citizens to stay involved if they want to spur change. Some of the best candidates for helping youth offenders are ex-offenders, he said.
“If we can get more people like you folks, connecting with each other and helping the kids in their communities, that’s what’s going to work.”
One of the biggest hurdles, according to Carino, is that reformed kids desperately need program-initiated supervision upon returning home, post-treatment. Otherwise they just fall back into their old ways.
Some recent law changes have proved detrimental to progress, including less stringent conditions of release. Runaway-risks and sex-trafficking victims are no longer held in custody, which could otherwise protect them.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the state has not yet been able to digitize juvenile criminal records.
The bottom line: A lot has to be done to reform juvenile justice in Connecticut.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.