Police and town officials across central Connecticut are uncertain if recent legislation will be enough to solve a problem that has plagued their communities far too long.
The General Assembly passed several bills to address juvenile car break-ins and motor vehicle theft this session, but some question whether these new sanctions will really make a difference.
HB 6505 provides the Judicial Branch with resources to improve juvenile detainment requests and SB 1093 criminalizes adults for the act of enticing a minor into committing a crime, such as a car theft or break-in. It also requires the Judicial Branch to decrease the time between a child’s arrest and their court appearance and requires juveniles to participate in diversionary programs.
Newington Mayor Beth DelBuono called the legislation “a start.”
“This acknowledges the problems we have cited with the way these motor vehicle crimes are handled,” she said. “My only concern is that I hope it doesn’t stop here. We need a continued partnership with our legislators to monitor if these changes are enough to make a difference. There needs to be a commitment of follow through on this issue. If these measures work, great but if not, we need to continue to make changes that will deter these crimes. Our communities have been terrorized for too long.”
In 2019 the state passed a law creating a diversionary program for youth offenders, requiring them to do community service and restorative justice while providing them with mental health services. The program was implemented late last year but still hasn’t quite found its footing.
Newington Police Chief Stephen Clark would like to see some real action taken on the issue.
“If they’re focusing on providing juveniles with services I would hope they truly put the financial resources into those services,” Clark said. “You just can’t say you’re going to do it and not actually have it done.”
Between Nov. 1 2019 and Nov. 1 2020, Newington Police recorded a 92% increase in stolen vehicles and 68% increase in car break-ins in town. Clark presented these numbers to the Town Council last November. Less than a month later, 100 cars were broken into in Newington and Berlin in a single night.
Newington State Rep. Gary Turco gathered stakeholders together in December to discuss possible solutions before the legislative session was set to begin.
“I spent a lot of time meeting with law enforcement, state agencies, the judicial branch, public defenders and juvenile justice advocates,” Turco said. “I held more meetings on this topic than any other issue. I wanted to get everyone’s perspective on how we can mitigate the issue, what’s working, what’s not working and how we can improve things.”
One facet of the problem is police make requests to the State Judicial Branch to detain juveniles who they deem a risk to public safety or themselves, and the requests go unfulfilled, leaving the youth to be released immediately.
Another issue is the state’s Police Pursuit Policy prohibits officers from chasing individuals who commit non-violent property crimes, such as stealing a parked car.
For those who do get caught, a lot can happen between the time they are arrested and when they finally get in front of a judge. Although the legislation asks courts to shorten this window of time, they have been backed up since the pandemic, so it will be at their discretion, according to Turco.
“We’re taking a multi-year approach with this whole issue until we can get it right,” he said. “I think this was just the beginning. We’re building off of what we passed in 2019; now we’re trying to make the systems work better. There’s definitely more that needs to be done.”
In New Britain, 191 stolen vehicles were reported in 2019, compared to 275 in 2020, and car burglaries more than doubled, from 205 to 496.
New Britain Police Chief Christopher Chute called the legislation “a step in the right direction” but also said it “falls tremendously short of what is needed to address the broken juvenile justice system.”
“There is an extremely small population of repeat juvenile offenders who are committing the vast majority of car thefts and car break-ins,” Chute said. “These offenders are not stealing cars to go on joy rides. These offenders are using these stolen cars to commit violent crimes. The legislation passed does not address any of these issues. We have continuously re-arrested the same repeat juvenile offenders and there is no consequence for their actions. I hope our state legislators go back to the drawing board and develop some real solutions in the next session.”
In Bristol, police saw just a few additional car thefts in 2020, as their numbers went from 106 in 2019 to 109 a year later, and fewer larcenies from motor vehicles, which fell from 137 to 107 in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Clark told the Herald his department has linked DNA from one of these cases to 23 others across the state.
In Berlin, stolen motor vehicles increased fourfold from 2019 to 2020 and car break-ins increased from 52 to 255.
Berlin State Rep. Donna Veach of the 30th House District, which also includes Southington, is of the opinion the legislation needed more teeth.
“Clearly what we’re doing is not working; they’re still out there stealing cars,” she said. “It’s a problem across central Connecticut and even reaches out to less dense areas. These juveniles know they cannot be held and they get released and they’re right back out there not even hours later doing the same crimes. Our police officers’ hands are tied. They can’t pull these kids over, they can’t arrest them; they can’t hold them. It’s a sad state of affairs right now.”
Veach co-sponsored a bill in February that proposed harsher penalties on juveniles who commit or attempt to commit these thefts, including detaining them until their court hearing. It did not receive enough support and changes were significant in the final bills that passed through the legislature.
Berlin Town Manager Arosha Jayawickrema told the Herald Berlin Police have “stepped up patrols” and are seeing far less of these crimes now.
“The Berlin Police Department started an initiative to increase patrols and they’ve pretty much eliminated all the car thefts in Berlin,” he said. “It seems to be working for now.”
Berlin Police declined request for comment.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at email@example.com.