February 28, 2007
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
Connecticut police chiefs say a proposal to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to be treated as juveniles in the criminal justice system would hinder investigations and potentially cost towns money.
Speaking to lawmakers at a public hearing at the state Capitol complex Tuesday, West Hartford Police Chief James J. Strillacci said requiring a parent or legal guardian to be present before a 16- or 17-year-old can be questioned would create more work for police departments already strapped for staff.
Connecticut is one of three states that treat children as young as 16 as adults in courts of law. The others are New York and North Carolina.
Strillacci said finding parents or legal guardians for some children isn't always easy and that can slow down investigators. A parent or guardian's presence is required when police question juveniles.
"This makes juvenile work very time- and labor-intensive," said Strillacci, a legislative liaison for the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association and a past president of the group. "It makes cops spend more time doing the same amount of work, and that's the last thing we need because we are all understaffed."
A bill before the legislature's select committee on children Tuesday called for raising the juvenile age from 16 to 18 over the next two years. The police chiefs association supports the concept of helping 16- and 17-year-olds in trouble with the law, Strillacci said. But the association believes that investing in programs is more effective than changing the law, he said.
Proponents of the measure point to new scientific research that shows 16- and 17-year-olds lack the emotional and mental maturity to fully appreciate the wrongfulness of their acts. Routing the older teens through juvenile courts would give them the support and counseling they need, advocates have said.
"We don't do a good job with 16- and 17-year-olds," said Christine Perra Rapillo, director of juvenile detention defense for the office of the chief public defender. "We need to focus on rehabilitation and helping these kids, and adult court is not set up to do that. Juvenile court is."
Strillacci said requiring municipalities to create separate holding areas for a larger number of juveniles would also create a financial hardship for some smaller towns that may not have enough space in their police departments for such an expansion.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds account for about 10.5 percent of all adult criminal cases, Strillacci said. Juvenile detention centers and shelters are already at capacity. Adding 16- and 17-year-olds to the mix would increase juvenile court caseloads by about 60 percent, the police chiefs say.
Judge William J. Lavery, Connecticut's chief court administrator, said he supports raising the juvenile age but cautioned that the state must fund the initiative to make it work.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell's proposed $35.8 billion two-year budget for fiscal 2008 and 2009 does not include money for the initiative. The General Assembly would have to add it.
Lavery said such a move would cost the state about $6.5 million in 2008 and $16.7 million in 2009 to hire more than 280 new staff members and prepare juvenile courthouses for the influx of new cases.
Operating the expanded juvenile courts would cost the state about $40 million a year, Lavery said - about half the initial estimate of a year ago. Lavery managed to trim cost projections by proposing to create regional expanded juvenile courts rather than buying or leasing new courthouse space, and by proposing to outsource juvenile detention needs for younger children. State Rep. Toni Walker, a New Haven Democrat and one of the leading advocates for raising the juvenile age, said she understands the police chiefs' concerns but she has concerns of her own.
"Frankly, if my child was picked up by the police, I would want them to call me," Walker said. "I know we may be asking a lot more of [law enforcement] but I would want the opportunity at that point to be a parent."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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