Connecticut advocates for juvenile justice

Connecticut is working towards giving juvenile offenders serving lengthy sentences a second chance.

The Connecticut Sentencing Commission is urging the state legislature to pass a bill that would give inmates who were convicted as juveniles serving lengthy sentences a chance for parole. Those favoring the legislation cite recent Supreme Court cases along with current scholarship that asserts that minors must be held less culpable of the crimes they commit and that they are better suited for rehabilitation and reform.

House Bill 5221, which is working its way through House committees now, would bring Connecticut into compliance with a 2012 Supreme Court mandate that children under 18 must no longer be given mandatory sentences of life without parole. Instead, sentencing of minors would be subject to the judge’s discretion.

This punishment, the decision said, violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

“This has compelled many states to change their sentencing schemes,” said Jeanne Leblanc, the communications and education manager for the ACLU of Connecticut. “Until Connecticut does the same, it invites constitutional challenges.”

More controversially, the bill would offer inmates who were sentenced as juveniles a “second look,” or eligibility for a parole hearing every year once they have completed 60 percent or 12 years of their sentences, whichever is longer.

Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee held a public hearing in Hartford that attracted prison reform organizations and advocates from across the state, including the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, the Connecticut ACLU and the Yale College Democrats, along with several other progressive student organizations across the state. In his written testimony to the House judiciary committee, Tyler Blackmon ’16, a member of the Yale College Democrats board, said he collected 451 signed letters from Connecticut students supporting HB 5221.

“The state is throwing children’s lives away,” said Alexandra Harrington LAW ’14, who has been studying juvenile sentencing through the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic. “This bill gives a second chance to people who truly can demonstrate that they’ve matured and grown and hold hopes and dreams to become productive members of their communities.”

Last year, the House passed the bill in a 137-4 vote, but it was never brought to a vote in the Senate. The bill’s champion in the Senate, Senator Eric Coleman, was unable to throw his whole weight behind the bill due to health problems. The bill also faced opposition from Senate Republicans, led by Senator John Kissel, who criticized it in a 2013 statement as “more focused on the offender and not the victim.”

“It’s been a two-year lobbying effort, but Republicans are using stall tactics because they don’t want it to pass, so they’re picking apart the language,” said Barbara Fair, a community activist and a member of the Sentencing Commission. She added that senators representing the urban areas most affected by youth incarceration are outnumbered by those representing suburban and rural districts.

Still, experts on the issue like Harrington and her colleague Gillian Quandt LAW ’14 said that they are optimistic the bill will pass this year, in compliance with a 2012 Supreme Court case banning mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles.

Connecticut’s juvenile sentencing laws are currently among the harshest in the nation, on par with those of many southern states, Quandt added.

But at the public hearing at the beginning of the month, State Victims Advocate Garvin Ambrose testified against the bill, asking the judiciary committee to reject it because the language goes beyond the precedent set in the case and does not sufficiently account for justice for the inmates’ victims.

In his testimony, Garvin proposed that the bill should be amended to ensure that offenders serving sentences shorter than 20 years would not be eligible for parole hearings under this bill and that victims would be notified of their offenders’ release in advance.

He added that the Board of Pardons and Paroles should have discretion over who is eligible for a parole hearing. As the bill stands, inmates would automatically be eligible for a hearing every year. Ambrose wrote that inmates should be given “a meaningful opportunity for release … not unending opportunities that will eventually result in release.”

The Sentencing Commission, which is comprised of judges, officials, experts and advocates, has since approved a series of changes to the bill that begin to address some of these concerns.

However, a 2013 report on juvenile sentencing written collaboratively by Yale and Quinnipiac law clinics contends that inmates sentenced as juveniles would not be released unless the parole board found them to be completely reformed and ready for reentry to society. The report, entitled “Youth Matters,” cites recent developments in brain science as well as several Supreme Court rulings to argue that juveniles cannot be held fully responsible for their actions, concluding that “sentencing policy must recognize children’s limited culpability, circumscribed choices, and enhanced potential for redemption.”

“Youth Matters” also highlights many of the racial disparities present in juvenile sentencing, which are more exaggerated than those present in adult sentencing. The composition of juvenile offenders serving 50 years or more in the state is 69 percent black, 23 percent Latino and 8 percent white.

The May 2013 report “I’m Going to Move Forward,” researched and written by Harrington and Quandt, foregrounds the anecdotes of inmates sentenced to lengthy terms as juveniles who become mature adults rehabilitated and ready for reentry.

“I live each day with the knowledge of what I have done, and I wish so bad that there was a way to change that terrible day,” said one inmate cited in the report who is serving a 30-year sentence for a murder he committed when he was 15. “However, that reality is impossible. If there’s one thing I do know and can do something about, it’s the fact that I can change the future as it pertains to myself. Furthermore, I know that I owe way more than this 30-year sentence in terms of me actually giving back.”

The state Department of Correction (DOC) notified offenders who could be impacted by this legislation that they had the opportunity to provide written testimony for the public hearing, said DOC spokesperson Karen Martucci. Victims were also notified and given the opportunity to participate in the hearing.

According to “Youth Matters,” there are approximately 275 people in Connecticut serving sentences of more than 10 years for crimes they committed as minors. About 50 of those are serving sentences of 50 years or more, most with no opportunity for parole.

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