Connecticut Bill Offers Juvenile Offenders Opportunity to Reduce Long Prison Sentences

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Posted Feb. 5, 2014

Interview with Alexandra Harrington, a third-year law student at Yale, and Leslie Aponte, the mother of a youthful offender, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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When the Connecticut legislature convenes this week, a bill will be introduced to provide a "second look" at lengthy prison sentences imposed on those who were juveniles when they committed crimes. A joint study by the law clinics at Quinnipiac and Yale universities revealed significant racial disparities. The study found that among 275 male inmates, 60 percent of those serving more than ten years are African American, 69 percent of those serving 50 years or more are African American and 100 percent of those serving life without parole sentences – 4 individuals – are also African American. The report reiterates what is now understood in the scientific community – that human brains are not fully developed until the mid-20s, making juvenile offenders less culpable for their actions, and also more capable of rehabilitation.

The proposed legislation is not a "get out of jail free" card, but rather would provide inmates serving long sentences an opportunity to apply for a sentence reduction based on individual evaluations. The bill was endorsed unanimously by the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, whose members include a judge, a victim's advocate and a prosecutor, among other experts.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke about the proposed measure with Alexandra Harrington, a Yale law student who conducted research on Connecticut juvenile offenders.

ALEXANDRA HARRINGTON: So, our clinic for two years has been working on this issue, and it started with a report where we analyzed Connecticut's practice of sentencing teenagers, really, in adult court to these lengthy sentences. It grew into a project where we talked to several individuals for crimes committed as children, and it also involved some talking to the legislature and testimony before the Judiciary Committee. So there are two parts to the proposal: the first part says that life without parole can no longer be a mandatory sentence in Connecticut. And that's pretty fundamental. The Supreme Court has said that mandatory life without parole sentences for teenagers are unconstitutional, so that has to be changed.

It also says that when judges are sentencing these teeenageers in adult court, they have to take into account factors like their age, their maturity, their capacity for change – that those have to be a part of the sentencing consideration. And the second part provides for what's called a Second Look review, basically a parole-like proceeding for people who have sentences of more than 10 years for crimes committed as children. It would provide for a parole review at 60 percent of the sentence or 12 years, whichever is longer. Anyone who has a sentence of more than 50 years would get this parole review after 30 years. Currently, most of these people either have no chance of parole or they only have a chance after serving 85 percent of their sentence.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, you're referring to them as children, which I guess, technically, they are. A lot of these young people are like 17 when they commit the crime ...

ALEXANDRA HARRINGTON: ...or 16 or 14.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Yeah, one was 14. But I'm imagining that a 16- or 17-year-old teenager who's involved in some kind of violent crime would not be considered by the victims of that crime or society in general as "children." So how do you address that, how do you convince people that they are children and their brains have not fully developed, and all that?

ALEXANDRA HARRINGTON: Sure, like you just suggested, there's a lot of recent brain science that suggests people's brains don't fully develop until the age of 26. Obviously in the popular conception, if we see someone who's 16, we think they know right from wrong, and the purpose of these bills is not to diminish the seriousness of their crime, but rather to express trough the legislature the reality that people can change, and that when you're 16 years old, your character is not formed; you still have the capacity for rehabilitation. And part of what has been written into these proposals is the opportunity for the victims to speak before the parole board when these people are eligible for parole. And I guess the final thing I would emphasize is that this proposal does not give everyone a blanket opportunity for release; it just gives them a chance – a chance to show that they've changed and that they can contribute and be successful members of society.

BETWEEN THE LINES: If it goes through the courts, we kind of end up with this murky system where people are going back for resentencing hearings where there's not a systematic way, for example, for victims to be notified, or there's not a systematic way for judges to know, "what am I supposed to be considering when I'm resentencing these people." Without the legislation telling the courts what's supposed to happen, it kind of becomes a mess as to what the next steps are. And there've actually been some cases that have gone back for resentencing, and a lot of the judges have expressed reluctance to act on these cases until the legislature acts.

Leslie Aponte, the mother of a youth convicted of felony murder that took place when he was 17. Her son, Nicolas, works in the prison hospice.

LESLIE APONTE: He's never allowed the walls of the prison to consume him, so he's always looked beyond the walls with hope that he'd come home one day. He's continued to educate himself. He's gone through a lot – a lot of depression, a lot of things in prison, of course. But he's always...he's been my supporter, in all honesty, through all this. He loves his job. You can work anywhere – you can work in the gym, you can work in kitchen. He loves doing what he's doing. He feels like that's his calling. He's met a lot of wonderful people, you know, prisoners. Let them die with dignity. He always tells them, I'm here because I care. Sometimes that's the last face they see, is my son's.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you understand the legislation? Tell me what you know about it or why you support it.

LESLIE APONTE: I support it because of all the studies that were done, we obviously know that the brain is not fully developed at a young age, and this bill would give my son the opportunity to come home sooner than the 38-year sentence. Even if it's about 60 percent of his sentence, he's certainly done that. So I just believe he's one of the ones that I would love for them to consider.

Find the report, "Youth Matters: A Second Look for Connecticut's Children Serving Long Prison Sentences here.

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