As the U.S Supreme Court considers whether imposing a life sentence on a 14-year-old constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, the state Sentencing Commission is working to establish a procedure to reconsider long sentences imposed upon minors.
Members of the Sentencing Commission testified during a Judiciary Committee public hearing on Monday about a bill that would require them to make recommendations for a process to modify the lengthy sentences of inmates convicted of crimes they committed as minors.
“In Connecticut we have children as young as 14 years old charged with certain serious crimes who are automatically tried as adults and sentenced to the same penalties as adults,” former Supreme Court Justice David Borden told the committee Friday. “There are a number serving very lengthy sentences with no opportunity for parole.”
As of September of last year, there were 191 inmates serving over 10 years for crimes they committed when they were younger than 18 years old. Thirty-two of them are serving sentences of 50 years or more, according to statistics provided by Borden and Michael Lawlor, the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to death. It has also ruled that minors must have the possibility of parole in all non-homicide cases. This year the high court is weighing two cases involving 14-year-olds sentenced to life in prison for murder convictions.
Borden said the court continues to readdress the issue in light of recent scientific research that establishes fundamental differences between the brains of adults and juveniles.
“The result of this has been a general thought that juveniles should be treated somewhat differently when it comes to imposing very lengthy sentences,” Borden said.
Barbara Bunk, president of the Connecticut Psychological Association, said neuroscientific research has found adolescents are less able to control impulses, less capable of avoiding risky behavior, less able to appreciate the consequences of actions, and more susceptible to peer pressure.
Because their brains are still developing, the crimes of minors tend to reflect the qualities of youth rather than permanent bad qualities, she said.
Borden said the commission will recommend the law be changed to allow a meaningful opportunity for young offenders to have an early release hearing. In order to be eligible they would have to serve a portion of their sentence and demonstrate rehabilitation and increased maturity, he said.
A working group within the commission agreed that the Board of Pardons and Parole should have authority over reconsidering the sentences. The board would be allowed to recommend early release if the offender showed remorse and atonement, he said.
While members of the Sentencing Commission are on the same page with regard to much of the issue, Borden said there are still a few sticking points. He asked for more time to reach a consensus.
The bill before the Judiciary Committee would do little aside from instructing the commission to study an issue upon which they already are working. Lawlor said the legislation also serves to stress to lawmakers the importance of the issue.
“As much as anything this is kind of a heads up to the committee,” he said.
The Supreme Court seems poised to say that the constitution requires a different type of treatment for offenders who committed crimes when they were under 18, he said.
“The final thing that you should be aware of is we have reason to believe that litigation will be filed shortly in federal court to force us to adopt some type of mechanism like what’s being described here. One way or the other, this has to be addressed,” he told the committee.
Novelist Wally Lamb urged lawmakers to address the issue quickly. Lamb, who heads a writing workshop at York Correctional Institution, spoke on behalf of an inmate he called “Keesha.”
At 14 years old, Keesha was involved in a robbery that ended in a homicide. She was tried as an adult and sentenced to 50 years in prison, Lamb said.
“In the early years of her incarceration, she attempted suicide three different times because, in her words, ‘How do you begin a life at age 64 when you never even started one?’” he said.
He read from an essay which Keesha, now in her early 30s, wrote about how she overcame her guilt and turned her life around in prison. She earned her GED, became a trained nurse’s assistant, participated in groups, and served as a role model, she said.
“Having bled this place dry of all the resources available to a woman of my time, I now sit and stagnate,” she wrote.
According to her essay, Keesha has now spent more of her life in prison than outside of it.
“What I want and what I pray for is a chance to break free from this pot of prison life so that I can lay down roots in the ground beyond these walls,” she wrote.