Lawmakers Waiting For More Data on Youth Car Thefts

Many police departments say they are following state guidelines by releasing teen suspects from custody. But some lawmakers say local police can make their own decision.

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Earlier this week in West Hartford, a 16-year-old was accused of stealing a car with a young child inside.  This time, the teen was detained by police, despite a state policy that encourages quick release of teenage suspects.

Many police departments say they are following state guidelines by releasing teen suspects. But some lawmakers say local police can make their own decision.

“It’s becoming clear that it’s more of a local police department decision on how they handle juvenile, youth car thefts,” Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said.

The 16-year-old suspect in West Hartford was arrested and faces multiple charges, including kidnapping. Police pursued a take into custody order from a judge based on the seriousness of the crime.

Walker, who is the chair of the Juvenile Justice Planning and Operations Committee, said many police release these youth to the custody of their parents instead of detaining them.

“I’m hearing these concerns from police that their hands are tied and they can’t do anything. I think that there are districts that make choices in that,” Walker said. 

The West Hartford incident earlier this week was held up as an example of how the system is supposed to work. In that case the teen was detained by police.

“In that case police did what they have not been doing in these other cases. They went and got an order from a judge to keep the kid in jail,” Michael Lawlor, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said. 

Police say the suspect left the toddler outside a restaurant unharmed. Police say the suspect is in custody and faces multiple charges, including kidnapping.

Lawlor said police need to do this more often.

“Under the current law you have the ability to do this. It’s a simple form. Just do it,” Lawlor said.

But police say it’s not as simple as it sounds.

“Most of us in law enforcement refer to the system as the arrest, release, repeat,” New Britain Christopher Chute said. 

Chute said they’ve identified nine repeat juvenile offenders that live in the city of New Britain. These nine offenders on average have been arrested 18 separate times between the ages of 12 and 17 years old. One 16-year-old was arrested twice on the same day for stealing cars.

“We were unable to obtain an order detention for these offenders. In layman's terms, we could not take those offenders into custody. We had to release them back to their parents with a juvenile summons,“ Chute said.

Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said police don’t always have enough information.

“The officer does not have available to them the history. Has this young man stolen a car a week before or are there other arrests?” Fishbein said. 

Police have six hours to prove a youth should be detained or they have to release them.

Lawmakers are contemplating extending the amount of time police have to get a detention order.

“In West Hartford they did and it worked,” Lawlor said.

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