BECK: Mobilize for juvenile justice reform

On March 10, HB 5221 cleared the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly, marking an important step forward for juvenile justice reform in the state; but the bill still has a ways to go before being implemented as law.

HB 5221 prohibits mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders — sentences that have already been declared unconstitutional by a Supreme Court that recognizes the developmental difference between children and adults. There’s plenty of scientific evidence that demonstrates that difference, but most of us can intuitively recognize how much we have changed in the years since we were in high school. Most of us recognize the injustice of binding people to the mistakes they made as teenagers for the rest of their lives.

To be sure, juveniles who commit serious crimes ought to face serious consequences. In Connecticut, however, these consequences are simply too severe, and the United States is currently the only country that sentences juvenile offenders to life without parole. Passing the juvenile justice reform bill would show the rest of the world that Connecticut rejects this outdated practice. Juvenile offenders would become eligible for a parole hearing after serving in prison for 12 years or 60 percent of their sentence, whichever is longer. This amounts to a sizable improvement in the law, acknowledging the special consideration juveniles deserve within the criminal justice system.

With its decision to move HB 5221 forward, the Judiciary Committee helped bring Connecticut a small step closer to improving its criminal justice system, but juvenile justice reform in Connecticut has been in this position before. Last year, the Connecticut House of Representatives passed a similar bill in a resounding 137-4 vote, reflecting bipartisan support for reform. It was a staggering level of consensus that seemed to guarantee successful passage through the General Assembly.

But the bill ultimately died in the Senate, where it was never called to a vote. Juvenile justice reform had support, but it wasn’t made the priority it needed to be to make it into law.

That can change this year. Given the legislature’s stunning failure to pass reform amidst widespread approval last year, it would be easy to sit back, sulk over governmental dysfunction and wait for progress to take shape on its own.  But with the lives of young people at stake — people convicted when they were just below our age — it is more important than ever for us to set aside our political disillusionment and speak out for what is right.

With a bill already in place supported by Democrats, Republicans and the nonpartisan Connecticut Sentencing Commission, the voice of the people may stand as the single most important factor in securing the successful passage of juvenile justice reform through both houses of the General Assembly. Passive support will not be enough. Connecticut is ready to pass reform, but legislators need to know we are watching.

We need to keep the issue on legislators’ minds to make reform the priority it never was in the last legislative session, and we can accomplish this by reaching out to state representatives and senators. More specifically, we need to thank members of the Judiciary Committee for supporting the bill, and we need to express our expectation that they follow through with their support and demand that reform be called to a vote in both houses. Groups on campus like the Yale College Democrats and the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project have been working to connect students to state officials, but anyone can find contact information for legislators on the website of the Connecticut General Assembly.

As college students, we claim a special familiarity with what it means to be a juvenile, which puts us in an important position as advocates for juvenile justice reform. Most of us can’t imagine spending our lives dealing with the consequences of the mistakes we made as adolescents.  Nor can we imagine what other mistakes we might have made had we come from backgrounds of violence and abuse, as so many juvenile offenders do. As the Connecticut General Assembly considers reform for a second time, we all have a role to play in offering juvenile offenders a second chance.

Jackson Beck is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at jackson.beck@yale.edu .

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