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Sentencing Modification for Juveniles is a Start

Hartford’s outgoing state representative Marie Kirkley-Bey might have done at least one good thing this year: co-sponsoring House Bill 5546, an Act Concerning Sentence Modification for Juveniles.

This columnist has long seen discrimination against youth as one of the next great civil rights battles. This bill is a tiny step in this battle, as kids convicted of violent crimes under 18 often recent adult length sentences.  But as they mature in jail, they have no meaningful opportunity to participate in a sentence modification process.

Currently, the sentence modification process for all inmates requires the cooperation of the prosecutor, to agree to a reduction. If you buy that a state’s attorney will agree to a sentence reduction, you’re too gullible to even make a joke about it.

The problem of lengthy sentences handed out to juveniles runs along racial lines. Former Connecticut Supreme Court Justice David Borden’s testimony laid out the details.

Connecticut’s overall population is 71 percent white. Yet whites make up only 32 percent of the prison population. Of the juvenile prison population, whites comprise 15 percent of the population serving more than three years, 10 percent of the population serving more than 10 years, and only six percent of the population serving 50 or more years.

If our penal system is about second chances, young people who are not white will are less likely to see a second chance.  This inherent bias is an example of the white supremacy I discussed last week. This bill begins to address some of that institutional racist oppression and white uplift within the system.

Although before we invest too much hope in this bill, note how it only mandates that the “Connecticut Sentencing Commission shall examine the feasibility of establishing a process that allows a person sentenced to a lengthy term of imprisonment for a crime committed when the person was under the age of eighteen to have a meaningful opportunity, after service of a portion of the term of imprisonment, to petition to have such sentence reduced and be released prior to the end of that term by demonstrating rehabilitation and increased maturity.”

We are merely examining the feasibility of establishing a process for juvenile convicts to participate in sentencing reduction. It is a start. It doesn’t undo mandatory minimums that kids are subject to. But it is a start.

At the public hearing Friday, March 23 at the Legislative Office Building, more than 30 people testified in favor of this bill.  Supporters like celebrated author Wally Lamb testified for those who could not be there.  Lamb, in written testimony, told the story of a jailhouse poet named Keesha.

Keesha, a couch-surfing child of drug addicts, robbed a convenience store at age 14. The resulting homicide left the courts to treat Keesha as an adult, and she got 50 years.

She won’t taste freedom until she is 64, if she ever tastes freedom at all, considering the branding a conviction like that means in our society. Lamb quoted Keesha’s essay “Laying Roots” in his testimony:

“When I committed my crime, I did not yet understand the concept of death. Oh, I knew that when you die, you are buried and gone forever. But I didn’t understand the pain of loss to your children, the devastation of a parent’s loss, or the ripple effect in a community.”

The guilt harangued her, and Keesha attempted suicide multiple times. After one attempt, she had a revelation that “I am more than I ever thought I could be.” She is now a role model to younger prisoners.  She got her GED, is a certified nurse’s assistant and has “bled this place of all the resources available to a woman with my time.

“I no longer take for granted the blessings God has given me,” Keesha wrote. “I have now spent more time in prison than I have outside of it, and I have come so far. 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.”

Lamb noted science tells us the adolescent brain develops slowly. It is unfair to treat Keesha as an adult.  “Connecticut needs to stop throwing away the lives of children prematurely branded as hopeless incorrigibles.” In short, we need to give Keesha a second look.

Without pulling the same heartstrings, Justice Borden, now a member of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, testified in favor of the bill.

Borden’s prepared testimony, with all the gravitas of a black robe, brought law and statistics together to document shattered lives.  This bill would help some of the 191 prisoners serving sentences longer than ten years based solely on crimes committed when they were under 18.  More than half of these people are ineligible for parole.

Borden identifies reducing these sentences as a legislative priority. Since gubernatorial appointee Michael Lawlor supports this bill, it is likely to get support and pass. After this exploration occurs, and a process is set up, it will take a new bill.

This is an agonizingly slow process for those in jail, many of who resigned to do their time long ago. But Connecticut did not get into the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality overnight, and we will not change this mindset overnight either.  Although justice and compassion demands that we must.

If we look even further down the road, once we open up the sentence reduction process for juveniles, the next logical step is to open sentencing reduction to adults.

For those who remember the autobiography of Jamaine Welborn, published exclusively here in the 40-Year Plan last year, his is a perfect case for sentence reduction.

He committed his crimes while he was 18 and a few months. He hadn’t hit 19. Yet he is doing 22 long years. He has served eight of those years, while the murderer who killed his brother served only eight years and is now free.

The process for Jamaine to leave jail early on a sentence reduction is almost impossible. His sentence for home invasion is tainted by the Cheshire murders. While he did not kill, no prosecutor is going to lessen the sentence for just another violent black criminal.

But the essence of human dignity is to respect the fragility and importance of an individual life,or at least sayeth humanitarian Norman Cousins. Whether behind bars, or testifying in front of the legislature, all deserve our respect.

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