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YLS and Quinnipiac Student Clinics Publish New Report on Youth Serving Long Prison Sentences

The Civil Justice Clinic at Quinnipiac University School of Law and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School have published a new report, Youth Matters: A Second Look for Connecticut’s Children Serving Long Prison Sentences. The report provides background and research on Connecticut’s practice of giving those under 18 very long no-parole sentences. Much of the report draws on public hearing testimony and personal interviews with some of those currently serving sentences of 20 to more than 60 years in Connecticut prisons for crimes they were convicted of as children.

Currently in Connecticut, children under 18 who commit certain crimes are automatically tried and sentenced as adults, including to life without parole. Between 250-300 people in Connecticut are now serving terms longer than 10 years, and about 50 are serving terms of 50 years or more, most without even the chance of parole. Children disappear into adult dockets, and never appear before a parole board.

By refusing to take youth into account at sentencing, the juvenile justice system has lagged behind recent developments in brain science, according to the report. Not only are children more vulnerable to environmental factors than adults (and often suffer abuse and violence), but they are also less able to evaluate risk, stand up to peers, and think through and control their impulsive actions. Yet these developmental factors do not predict the adults they will become. Children, in other words, are both less culpable than adults and more capable of reform, states the report. Drawing on new brain science and psychological studies, the U.S. Supreme Court has banned as cruel and unusual the practice of sentencing children to death, mandatory life without parole, and, in non-homicide cases, life without parole. In three cases, it has emphasized that children should not be sentenced as though they were adults.

Responding to these Supreme Court decisions, and after two years of study and discussion, the Connecticut Sentencing Commission concluded that there should be a “second look” for children sentenced to lengthy prison terms. With the input of victim advocates, prison and parole officials, prosecutors, defense counsel, and judges, the Commission has worked out a consensus solution. The proposed set of reforms would provide a juvenile serving a long sentence with the chance for a hearing before a parole board after he or she has served a substantial portion of the sentence. No one would be released automatically—the parole board could deny parole to anyone, in its discretion. But each of these children—many of whom have been sentenced to 40, 50, or 80 years—would have the opportunity to demonstrate their growth and change. The Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly is currently considering those recommendations. (The proposal is reflected in two bills, HB 6581 and SB 1062.)

The Youth Matters Report tells the stories of some of the children who would benefit from the pending legislation. These young people, who have spent most of their lives in prison, have demonstrated the capacity for change and growth, as well as for deep remorse. Here are two excerpts from personal stories.

Nicholas reflected:
“Early in my incarceration, revisiting the night of the crime proved difficult: How can I have participated in something that resulted in a person’s death? For a teenager, this was difficult to comprehend. I oscillated from denial to reality. After I was sentenced to 38 years, I was provided a copy of the pre-sentence investigation report. Included in it were letters by the [victim’s] family, and it was their letter that broke through the wall I created to avoid completely feeling and facing my role in their pain and suffering. With an open heart and mind I read each word. Most profound was the letter of [the victim’s father]. His suffering, unimaginable to me as a father, touched the depths of my heart and mind. He also showed compassion and hope that I would reflect on the errors of my life choices, rehabilitate myself and practice ‘constructive efforts that can validate an altered maturity towards service to others.’ It was his words and examples of humanness that helped me to recognize that I was not beyond redemption.”

Rachel, who entered prison at age 14, wrote:
“I may have entered this prison a broken little girl but I am a complete woman. I am a woman of depth capable of compassion and love. I am a woman who has worked for years to heal the things that traumatized her. I entered this prison with a 6th grade education and now I have a college education. I have gained my C.N.A. license and care for the sick and dying in the infirmary. I am trained to teach workshops on non-violence and mentor my fellow inmates. I went from having no self-esteem to knowing I am capable of anything. I think of my victim every day and pray for his family every night but I am no longer defined by the thoughts and actions of my former self. People change.”