Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and new developments in psychology and brain science are prompting Connecticut to reconsider prison sentences for juveniles.
The courts allow for a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, but juveniles in Connecticut can still receive mandatory sentences of life without parole in adult court.
That discrepancy is why Judge Joseph Shortall, chairman of Connecticut Sentencing Commission, says it is time for the state to make some changes.
"Three times in the past seven years the United States Supreme Court has held that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced as if they were adults," he said in a prepared statement. "These decisions have made it necessary for the commission to look into what changes are necessary in Connecticut's sentencing and parole laws to conform to the U.S. Constitution."
According to 2011 statistics, 272 people in Connecticut are serving more than 10 years in prison for crimes they committed when they were under 18. Forty-eight of those individuals are serving sentences of 50 years or more, and many are not eligible for parole.
The sentencing commission will hold a hearing on three proposals that address juvenile sentencing on Nov. 29. It expects to decide whether to recommend those proposals to state lawmakers on Dec. 20.
The state's sentencing commission was established in 2010 and is responsible for reviewing Connecticut's criminal justice and sentencing policies and laws. It makes recommendations to state lawmakers, but doesn't have the power to single-handedly make changes to state law.
"The sentencing commission has been of the opinion that in Connecticut a legislative response would be preferable to case-by-case decisions by different courts as to what these cases require," said Shortall.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said juveniles "have lessened culpability" and are "less deserving of the most severe punishments," he said. Those decisions were based on scientific and sociological research that says the brain of a juvenile is underdeveloped and that juveniles are more likely than adults to be influenced by their peers, Shortall said, adding that there is a fundamental difference between juvenile and adult minds.
In one case, Graham v. Florida, the court ruled that sentencing juveniles who did not commit murder to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment. In another case, Miller v. Alabama, the court ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juveniles who have been convicted of murder from being sentenced to a life in prison without the possibility of parole.
As a result of these court decisions, the commission may propose allowing parole for people serving sentences of more than 10 years for crimes they committed while under 18. If the sentence is 60 years or less, the offender would be eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence. The offender would have to serve at least 10 years, however.
If the sentence is more than 60 years, the offender would be eligible for parole after serving 30 years.
According to the proposals, a person would only be eligible for parole for crimes committed while they were under 18 and a lawyer would be appointed to help them prepare for the parole hearing.
To be released, here must be "reasonable probability" that the person will not commit another crime, and the person's release must benefit the public more than continued imprisonment.
The proposed parole changes would be retroactive for juveniles convicted of murder. According to the commission, five offenders who received mandatory life sentences without parole would have to be resentenced.
As it works to craft recommendations for state lawmakers, the sentencing commission has received help from Quinnipiac University law professors Linda Meyer and Sarah Russell.
"We're sort of just volunteering to help out because we care about the issue," Meyer said last week.
Meyer said she grew interested in juvenile prison sentences after a visit to the York Correctional Institution in Niantic. Meyer teaches a class called theories of punishment, and she said she takes her students there annually.
During one visit, she learned about an inmate who received a sentence of 50 years without parole for a crime they committed as a teenager, and the story stayed with her.
Last year, Meyer taught a seminar called "The Individual and the Community" at York, and her students were inmates with longer sentences who did not have other educational opportunities. Five of those students had committed their crimes before the age of 20, and Meyer said she had the opportunity to see them as adults.
"It was one of the richest and most rewarding teaching experiences I've ever had," Meyer said. "The insight, maturity, and thoughtfulness of these students, especially the long-termers who offended as teenagers, were astounding."
Research shows that the brain does not fully develop until age 25, Meyer said. Teenagers can also struggle to get away from bad family situations and are often influenced more by their peers than adults, Meyer said, adding that teenagers are more prone to make impulsive decisions.
The Nov. 29 public hearing on the proposals will be held at noon in room 2C of the legislative office building.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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