True to Constitution, fair to victims' families

No one can deny the suffering inflicted by youthful offenders on their victims and the victims' families, which was highlighted in The Day's May 23rd article on legislation concerning juvenile parole ("Families of victims despair at idea of possible shortened sentences").

I write to provide more information about the legislation.

Kuntrell Jackson was 14 when he went along with his older cousin and another boy named Shields to rob a video store in Arkansas. When the clerk threatened to call the police, Shields shot her. Kuntrell, who was unarmed, received a life sentence with no parole for his involvement in the crime. The United States Supreme Court overturned Kuntrell's sentence, finding it to be cruel and unusual in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The court said that because of Kuntrell's youth, he was both less responsible for the crime than an adult and more capable of reform in the future. The court noted that young teenagers "lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings," and for a 14-year-old, coercion, peer pressure, and abuse can lead to tragedy both for the young offender and for his or her victims.

The court's opinion in the Jackson case, and its opinion in a previous case, Graham v. Florida, cast doubt on the constitutionality of some of the very long prison sentences given to juveniles in Connecticut. The Connecticut Sentencing Commission, a non-partisan body that includes judges, prosecutors, the victim's advocate, defense counsel, and community members, studied the problem for almost two years, holding a public hearing and seeking the views of victims' and offenders' families.

The commission found that there are more than 200 people in Connecticut now serving long sentences for crimes that occurred when they were young teenagers. Many of these youthful offenders were convicted of felony murder, like Kuntrell, and are ineligible for parole. Many of the cases involved kids acting impulsively under pressure from older peers or adults. Some cases involve clear intent to do harm; others do not. Some individuals have demonstrated extraordinary rehabilitation after growing up behind bars - serving as prison hospice volunteers and peer mentors. Others have not taken advantage of opportunities in prison. Each case is different.

No doubt some of these long sentences for juveniles are justified, but under the Supreme Court's recent jurisprudence, we must take a second look to be sure that we are in compliance with our Constitution. While we could wait for these cases to drag their way through the court system in years of litigation, the commission determined that allowing a second look through the parole board would be safer for our communities, fairer to victims, more consistent across cases, and would give as much balance and certainty in these situations as possible after the Supreme Court's rulings.

The commission's consensus recommendation on this issue was adopted with some modifications from the House of Representatives by a vote of 137 to 4 on May 21. As of this writing, Senate action was pending.

The bill does not reduce sentences or guarantee release. Rather, the bill provides juveniles with the chance for a hearing before the parole board after serving 60 percent of the sentence, or 12 years, whichever is longer. For example, a 15-year-old who received a sentence of 50 years would be eligible for parole after she had served 30 years of her sentence. (Those sentenced to more than 50 years would be eligible after 30 years). The parole board would apply more stringent standards in these cases than in ordinary adult cases, use scientific risk assessment tools, and receive input from the victim, prosecutor, inmate, Department of Correction, and experts.

The suffering of victims and their families is unspeakable. The commission made certain that victims will have plenty of notice of these changes and will be able to decide individually the extent to which they would like to participate, instead of being required to re-experience a court process that is filled with uncertainty and could take years to conclude.

The state's chief prosecutor described the proposal as "balanced legislation" that not only responds to the Supreme Court decisions but also provides a "vehicle to justly determine whether someone may be released from confinement and provides the authority to appropriately restrict and supervise those who may be released."

Judge Shortall is chairman of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, which can be reached by contacting Andrew Clark, acting executive director, at clarkanj@mail.ccsu.edu.

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