At a forum in the Dwight Hall common room last night, New Haven activists and legal experts underscored the importance of granting minors convicted to life sentences without parole a second look at their sentences.
The event — co-hosted by the Yale College Democrats, the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project and Project Youth Court — focused on juvenile justice reform in the state of Connecticut. Both the Dems and YUPP have been active in promoting reform in this arena. The Dems, in particular, have strongly advocated for reform. Representatives from the group travelled to Hartford earlier this year to testify before the General Assembly in favor of a “second look” bill, which would ban mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles and also retroactively apply to current life-without-parole sentences.
Speakers at the event included New Haven and Yale figures. Among them were Barbara Fair, a longtime activist, and George Chochos DIV ’16, who spent over a decade in New York prisons, where he earned two bachelor’s degrees before enrolling at the Yale Divinity School.
The speakers devoted the bulk of their time to discussing the “second look” bill. The legislation is before the General Assembly for the third consecutive year, said Sarah Russell LAW ’02, a speaker at the event and professor at the Quinnipiac University Law School. It passed the House on both occasions but never came up for a vote in the Senate.
Alexandra Harrington LAW ’14, another criminal justice reform advocate, said the bill came about after Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama, two Supreme Court decisions that established rules regarding the sentencing of minors.
Fair also criticized the current state of the juvenile justice system beyond life-without-parole sentences. She said the system has too often neglected the interests of at-risk youths, an area that needs immediate reform.
“[The juvenile justice system] was created because we recognize that children are children,” she said. “So rather than treat them as criminals, we want to help them with prevention and protection. That seems to have gone away now, and we’ve begun to criminalize them.”
The speakers also discussed the role of solitary confinement in both the juvenile and adult justice systems. Fair and Chochos, both of whom have had either familial or personal experience in prisons, strongly opposed the use of solitary confinement.
Fair said her son went into solitary confinement on his 17th birthday. She described its use as “nothing less than torture,” and said her son has never been the same since his experience there. Noting that international law has condemned the U.S.’s use of solitary confinement, she called for its curtailing in prisons.
Chochos echoed Fair’s sentiment. He said his experience in solitary confinement has inalterably changed him.
“I spent 20 days in solitary, and it still affects me,” he said. “It’s still hard to go into a place where there’s a lot of people, and it’s hard to go into a place where there’s no one. And prison alone is a psychological onslaught.”
The speakers were divided on the prospects of success for criminal justice reform. Russell said she remains optimistic about the legislation, adding that the advocacy work done by groups like the Dems might prove crucial to its passage.
But Fair was less enthusiastic. Referencing cases of abuse in for-profit prisons in New Jersey, she said prison has become an industry, and the justice system creates criminals to fill up spaces.
“I don’t even think it can be reformed,” she said. “I think it needs to … start all over again and [center] on prevention. Let’s try to keep kids from getting into the system in the first place.”