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Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic Publishes Second Report on Effects of Youth Sentenced as Adults

The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School has published a new report, I’m Going to Move Forward: Stories of Change from Men Imprisoned as Children in Connecticut. The report, authored by Ali Harrington '14 and Gillian Quandt '14, contains accounts from ten men who are serving long prison sentences in Connecticut for crimes that occurred when they were children.

The report comes two months after the Lowenstein clinic released a related report titled “Youth Matters: A Second Look for Connecticut’s Children Serving Long Prison Sentences.” Both reports aim to shine a light on the issue of Connecticut’s treatment of youth offenders as the state considers two new pieces of related legislation.

In I'm Going to Move Forward, the men describe their experiences growing up in prison, the decisions they made to change, the opportunities they have taken to improve themselves, and their hopes of rejoining their families and making positive contributions to their communities.

“Yakil” describes his resolution to change after entering prison at the age of 16:

I live each day with the knowledge of what I have done, and I wish so bad that there was a way to change that terrible day. However, that reality is impossible. If there’s one thing I do know, and can do something about, it’s the fact that I can change the future as it pertains to myself. Furthermore, I know that I owe way more than this 30 year sentence, in terms of me actually giving back.

I will never forget that moment at my sentencing when my elderly foster mother, whose heart was breaking in a million pieces as she watched her son be sent away and sentenced to 30 years in prison, broke down and never recovered. So I vowed from that moment that I would come out of this situation a better person.

The Connecticut General Assembly is currently considering two bills that would provide a “second look” for people who, like Yakil, were sentenced to long prison terms as children. Currently, Connecticut treats children charged with certain serious crimes as adults. The state transfers these children to adult courts and, if it finds them guilty, often sentences them to prison terms of several decades.

For many of the crimes for which these individuals have been convicted, the state does not allow parole. In other cases, the state does not permit parole hearings until an individual has served 85% of his sentence. For a 16-year-old who is given a 50-year sentence without parole, it means that he will not see the outside of a prison until he is 66, no matter how well he does inside.

Senate Bill 1062 and House Bill 6581 would bring Connecticut into compliance with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that emphasize that children should not be sentenced as though they were adults.

Senate Bill 1062 would eliminate mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children. It would require judges sentencing juveniles in adult court to consider youth-related factors.

House Bill 6581 would create a “second look” system for individuals serving sentences of more than ten years for crimes that occurred when they were under the age of eighteen. The bill does not guarantee release but, rather, provides the opportunity for a parole hearing after a substantial portion of the sentence has been served.

Neither bill provides for an automatic release of anyone serving long sentences. The bills would, however, give some people who have already served more than a decade in prison the opportunity to demonstrate that they have changed, grown, and accepted responsibility for their crimes. Students in the clinic believe these legislative changes would assert that Connecticut knows what common sense, science, and the Supreme Court already tell us—that children can change.

“Jeremy," who was arrested at 16 and is serving a sentence of more than 30 years for manslaughter, reflects on his experiences as a Certified Nursing Assistant in Prison (C.N.A.) and his hopes to continue that work in the community:

As a C.N.A., I was able to experience and truly understand compassion and unconditional love. I worked and cared for people who were helpless. I sat with them day and night. These people were bedridden. Who knew these conditions existed within the prisons? Some of these people were on the verge of dying. Listening to their most heartfelt thoughts and being at the most vulnerable part of their life brought me to tears. I prayed with them and did my best to create comfort.

Who knew this 16-year-old juvenile would grow and contribute to something so profound, something with substance? . . . [When I get out of prison], I am going to become a C.N.A. somewhere and work with people who are sick. As a C.N.A., you need to put forward unconditional love to your patients. When it comes back to you, it’s a beautiful feeling. I am going to apply all over to be a C.N.A. No matter how many people say no, I’m going to move forward.

The accounts from Yakil, Jeremy, and others in I’m Going to Move Forward provide a glimpse at young people’s potential for significant change while in prison.