Adolescents differ from adults in many ways. Our laws reflect this in not allowing minors to purchase alcohol or tobacco, serve on a jury, sign a contract, and so on. But Connecticut still sentences adolescents to extremely long and sometimes life sentences, with no possibility of parole.
Current state law violates U.S. Supreme Court rulings and ignores what science tells us about the developing brain. For the third year in a row, the legislature has a chance to correct this by passing the so-called “Second Look” bill. The proposal, formulated by a non-partisan commission, creates a mechanism for people convicted as minors to seek parole after serving the majority of their sentences.
Adolescents tend to be more impulsive, more influenced by peers, and more likely to take risks. The pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps us exercise judgment and weigh the consequences of our actions, is not fully developed until well into our twenties, whereas areas in the “emotional brain” that trigger stress reactions are fully developed by adolescence. Thus youth are developmentally susceptible to having their brains in effect hijacked by stress reactions that interfere with the most basic requirement of self-control: the ability to stop and think. This means that the behaviors of an adolescent are not necessarily predictive of how the same person will act in adulthood.
The sentences addressed by Second Look were imposed for serious crimes that cannot be justified or excused. However the current law fails to take into account lapses in judgment and responsibility, characteristic of youth, that in many cases are not inevitably repeated and that can be addressed through rehabilitation. But these lapses may become chronic with incarceration.
Thus a person released after an overlong sentence may be less fit to re-enter society than someone who serves a more moderate term.
Even adolescents who pose a significant risk to the community cannot be reliably predicted to pose a risk as adults. One study found that only 16 percent of minors who scored in the top quintile of measures of psychopathy would continue to be assessed as psychopaths by age 24. Another recent study found that among a majority of people convicted of homicides as adolescents, “cruelty and callous, unemotional behavior” did not persist into adulthood.
A study with adolescents in the juvenile justice system showed that what appear to be callous and unemotional traits characteristic of psychopathy often are better understood as emotional numbing acquired through traumatic experiences, and therefore amenable to rehabilitation.
The bill before the legislature does not — and should not — simply assume that young people who commit serious crimes will outgrow their behavior. It requires them to meet a high standard of proof before a parole board, an even higher standard than the state imposes on those who committed crimes as adults. It also provides a path for meaningful rehabilitation rather than fostering a sense of hopelessness that can lead to a deepening of antisocial beliefs and behavior patterns.
Adolescents should be held accountable for their behavior and would be under this reform. Second Look requires young people to serve the majority of their sentence before there will be any parole eligibility. And again, there is no guarantee of parole even then. South Carolina passed legislation that was more lenient toward former adolescent offenders than this proposal, and its parole board has yet to release anyone under the statute.
My point is simply this: Reform and rehabilitation are possible for adolescents, even those who have committed serious crimes. It is not only possible; it is highly likely. Thus among the hundreds of prisoners who would be affected by this bill, the science suggests that many could be safely released into the community. To deny someone even the chance to demonstrate rehabilitation after being convicted as an adolescent flies in the face of a strong body of knowledge about human development.
Julian Ford is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and director of the Center for Trauma Recovery and Juvenile Justice within the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
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