Gov. M. Jodi Rell's proposal to allow the state Board of Pardons and Paroles access to sealed juvenile offender records is meeting resistance from youth advocates who are urging state lawmakers not to act hastily.
Rell wants the board to have access to the sealed files when they make decisions about whether to release prisoners and what kind of treatment or supervision they should have.
Her proposal is part of an omnibus criminal justice reform package expected to be voted on when the legislature convenes for a brief special session Tuesday.
Lawmakers have been working to tighten the supervision of state prisoners ready for release in the wake of the murders of three members of the Petit family in Cheshire last July. The two suspects in that case had recently been released on parole despite their extensive criminal histories, some of which dated to when they were juveniles. Board members later acknowledged that they didn't have court transcripts and other material that may have influenced their decisions.
But some youth advocates fear that opening the files undermines the basic principles of juvenile justice and is unfair to individuals who shouldn't be punished for their reckless behavior when they were young.
"This really eviscerates the purpose of juvenile court, which is to provide rehabilitation in a confidential setting," said Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children's Advocacy at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
Stone and other juvenile advocates point to recent scientific research showing that adolescents' brains continue to develop through their early 20s and that teenagers are not able to fully appreciate the wrongfulness of their acts until their bodies have fully matured.
At the very least, advocates say, lawmakers should wait until the regular three-month legislative session convenes in February so the idea can be fully vetted with public and expert input at legislative hearings.
"This is an extraordinarily important issue that has a lot of ramifications," said Abby Anderson, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Alliance, a statewide advocacy group. "If we are going to open records, it should be very carefully planned out as to when it is done and how it is done, it should not be a blanket release of all records."
Rell's proposal would allow the parole board and certain officials with the state Department of Correction to view juvenile records only of individuals who have been convicted of a crime in adult court.
The correction department would not have access to the juvenile records of individuals being held in state jails while their criminal cases are still pending. By statute, the parole board only considers cases in which criminals have been convicted of a felony and sentenced to more than two years in prison.
"Gov. Rell feels that the people making decisions about possibly pardoning or paroling inmates need to have complete information — and that includes juvenile records — in order to make informed, competent decisions," Rell spokesman Adam Liegeot said Friday. "In the governor's bill, the same privacy protections that apply to people who currently have access to these records would apply. ... Gov. Rell has consistently said that the proper privacy safeguards must be in place."
Parole board Chairman Robert Farr said board members would review the records behind closed doors, as they currently do when looking at records of sex offenders or inmates who have received mental health treatment, to protect an individual's privacy. He said judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors all have access to juvenile offender information, and it is absurd that the parole board — which is responsible for assessing inmates' threat to the public — does not.
"It's hard to make a decision about what kind of treatment there should be or what a person's release conditions should be if we don't know what the person did," Farr said.
Farr said the need to access juvenile offender history becomes even more acute because the legislature passed a law last year allowing adolescents age 17 and 18 to be treated as juveniles in criminal courts, beginning in January 2010. Farr said the change — designed so that troubled teens can benefit from the privacy and a wider array of rehabilitation programs offered in juvenile court — means a greater number of criminal records will be sealed and unavailable to the pardons board unless Rell's proposal is approved.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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