The other day, I played a little thought experiment. Over lunch, I asked a group of friends what they were like at age 15. One described herself as “rebellious.” Another said, “Really shy and awkward.” A third chuckled: “Incredibly immature. I’ve really grown up a lot since high school.”
Few of us can claim to be the same people we were at age 15 — a significant amount of brain development goes on during, and even after, adolescence. That’s a reality that Connecticut lawmakers have refused to acknowledge.
Under current Connecticut law, juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Fortunately, this might soon change. This legislative season, lawmakers are considering a bill that would give juveniles the chance for a second look — an opportunity for the Board of Pardons and Paroles to assess the possibility of release after they have served a portion of their sentence.
Hearing even the story of one juvenile serving a life sentence highlights the importance of offering the chance for parole. Take Rachel, a woman profiled in “Youth Matters: A Second Look for Connecticut’s Children Serving Long Prison Sentences,” a report released by the Quinnipiac University School of Law and a clinic at the Yale Law School. Rachel was imprisoned at age 14 and is serving a 50-year sentence. In prison, she has been rehabilitated and trained to teach workshops on non-violence. “I am no longer defined by the thoughts and actions of my former self,” she says in the report. “People change.”
Connecticut’s current juvenile sentencing standards might seem troubling, certainly outdated. But they are also incompatible with constitutional standards. In the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to give juveniles mandatory life sentences without the chance of parole.
In maintaining laws that are incompatible with Miller v. Alabama, it seems Connecticut has fallen behind the nation at large. And worse still, the United States remains behind much of the international community in upholding the rights of juveniles, as one of few countries that have not signed on to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. This convention prohibits life sentences without parole for those under 18.
For the past two years, Connecticut policymakers have tried to bring the state’s juvenile sentencing standards in line with the Constitution to no avail. Both years, similar juvenile justice reform bills died in the state senate. This year, as engaged constituents, we can help ensure that the Connecticut General Assembly passes what is known as the “second-look bill”: legislation ending the wrongful practice of sentencing juveniles to mandatory life sentences without chance of parole.
Constituents — and even policymakers — have formed misguided assumptions about the second-look bill. Many believe that such legislation would make it easy for juveniles to be released early from prison. In reality, this bill would only ensure that juveniles have the opportunity to receive a second look from parole boards after they have served part of their sentences. Parole boards would then apply stringent criteria to ensure those released would not pose a threat to their communities.
Second-look legislation isn’t any sort of “get out of jail free” card. According to previous iterations of the bill, individuals would have to serve either 12 years or 60 percent of their sentences before qualifying for a parole board hearing. They would also be subject to ongoing accountability after their release — parole supervision can involve electronic monitoring, drug testing and mandatory treatment.
If passed, the second look legislation could have a significant impact. There are currently hundreds of people in Connecticut who were convicted before the age of 18 and are serving lengthy sentences, many without the possibility of parole. As Justice Elena Kagan reasoned in the Miller v. Alabama majority opinion, the harsh sentences levied on juveniles often don’t account for the myriad stresses they experience growing up: gang pressure, poverty, violence and more. Minorities are also vastly overrepresented in Connecticut’s prisons: Ninety-two percent of juvenile offenders serving sentences of 50 years or more are African American or Hispanic.
Most of us are given the opportunity to redeem ourselves for the mistakes we make in adolescence. It’s important that Connecticut law give all juveniles that same chance — the chance for a second look.
Emma Goldberg is a junior in Saybrook College and a former opinion editor for the News. Her column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.