The state’s top prosecutor said a recent change in the law may be giving juvenile offenders the opportunity to keep breaking into cars with little consequence as the number of vehicle break-ins and thefts continue to rise.
Over the weekend, West Hartford police arrested two juveniles accused of breaking into cars. Both of the suspects were wearing GPS monitoring ankle bracelets at the time because they were already on probation for committing similar crimes, according to police.
"What does that tell you- two days later they're walking free? There's no consequence to their actions," Vince Berry, of West Hartford, whose vehicles were targeted four times, said.
Statistics provided by the police department show that 96 auto thefts were reported in 2015 and 111 were reported in 2016. This year, 118 vehicles had already been reported stolen through mid-September.
"They are out of control,” Kevin Kane, the Chief State's Attorney, said. He believes some of the reforms that took effect in 2012, 2016 and 2017 may actually be making it tougher to protect the public and to rehabilitate young offenders.
"The intent of the reforms are good," Kane said. "They went a little too far because it removed the ability of the police and the courts to appropriately hold certain offenders."
Kane said recent changes passed by the legislature make it nearly impossible to transfer serious juvenile cases to adult court. He said juvenile court and police need more discretion to imposing restrictions after someone is arrested and to detain a juvenile before going to trial.
"The problem is not so much that the police haven't arrested and apprehended these youngsters, it's that they have to let them go immediately", Kane said.
Hartford police provided information on the arrest history of a 16-year-old boy, which they said typifies the problem. That juvenile had been arrested eight times in the last two years. Six of those arrests were for possession of a stolen vehicle, a car burglary or both, according to police.
"We are getting the same kids over and over and over again," Hartford Police Deputy Chief Brian Foley said.
Christine Rapillo, acting deputy chief public defender, has a different view of the problem.
"These reforms have been working," said Rapillo. "There's no question that they're working," Rapillo said.
Rapillo said reforms which added 17-year-olds to juvenile court were a productive change. She said juvenile crime is currently down overall, but stealing a car, which is a felony, seems to be bucking that trend. Rapillo said a juvenile's case that is serious enough can still be moved to adult court, which happens approximately 100 times a year. Rapillo admits that it takes more work now for prosecutors to get that done.
"You need to get a court order. In order to transfer a case, you need to have a motion filed," Rapillo said.
But until something changes, victims fear their vehicles will just get hit again.
"I don't think that the punishment is enough because these kids keep doing it," Jennifer Shimanski, of West Hartford, said.
Shimanski said she had her vehicles targeted more than once.Her husband's car was stolen a few months ago and later recovered in Hartford. Then in September, her home surveillance camera captured what appears to be two young men on bicycles in her driveway in the middle of the night. Shimanski admits, her vehicle was unlocked when the suspects approached.
The Chief State's Attorney said he does not the reforms done away with. But he does want the legislature to improve them by giving the courts and the police what he calls 'appropriate discretion' to be able to hold juveniles longer and to be able to move them to adult court more easily if needed.