For the second year in a row, the legislature of Connecticut has failed our children. No, I’m not talking about the children affected by the Common Core educational standards, or the children affected by increasing gun violence, but the children that no one cares to think of as children: juvenile delinquents, as they might’ve called them back in the 60s.
“Think of the children” is the rallying cry of politicians and agitators of all stripes who want to further curb lawful activity or ratchet up the already vice-like grip of penal sentences. These children they want you to think of are the sweet, doe-eyed innocents whose very lives are at constant risk from the criminal lurking in the shadow, awaiting any opportunity to jump out and corrupt these wondrous babes.
But the minute the child itself becomes accused of any crime, the protective motherly instinct turns into a vengeful hatred that suddenly renders the still-teenager undeserving of the same sympathy and protection.
For two years, a bipartisan sentencing commission has recommended that, in order to comply with a constitutional mandate from the U.S. Supreme Court, our sentencing scheme should be altered to: 1) require that there is no automatic life without release for any juvenile; and 2) provide for a second chance for all juveniles to demonstrate their rehabilitation after a significant period of incarceration.
For a variety of reasons, almost all of them having to do with politics, this legislation has twice died on the floor of the Senate.
Meanwhile, study after study finds that children aren’t intellectually developed fully until they’re well into their 20s and that treating children as adults as early as 14 has significant negative impact on their development and their ability to contribute successfully to society.
While Connecticut has made some strides in treating juveniles fairly, there are still significant issues that remain unaddressed, including the aforementioned “second chance” legislation. You’ve heard enough of that, though, so I’ll focus on a couple of other areas.
A recent report from the juvenile justice group Campaign for Youth Justice recommends that juveniles always be treated as juveniles and housed with other juveniles as opposed to adults. This is premised on research that shows that juveniles are more likely to commit further acts of violence when surrounded by adults, rather than juveniles. Adult facilities also don’t have the resources needed to treat and help children.
In Connecticut, by statute (C.G.S. 46b-127), any child between the ages of 14 and 18 is automatically transferred to adult court when charged with a Class A or B felony. Not a single person in the criminal justice system who interacts with juveniles on a daily basis has the ability to stop that transfer: not judges, not prosecutors and certainly not social workers or defense attorneys.
Even after the case is transferred to adult court, judges and defense attorneys are still completely helpless when it comes to the treatment of juveniles as adults. For some reason, the legislature has deemed it fit to vest that immense power only in the hands of prosecutors who get to decide whether to continue to treat a 14-year-old as an adult or give him a chance at redemption and send him back to juvenile court.
The Campaign for Youth Justice recommends that judges and defense attorneys also be given the authority to seek a return to the more understanding confines of juvenile court, but Connecticut fails here.
You can imagine that the consequences of being convicted as an adult are significantly harsher than if one is convicted as a juvenile. For some reason (see a trend here?), our legislature did not think to consider the interaction of the automatic transfer statute when enacting severe mandatory-minimum sentences for serious felonies.
For instance, a conviction for some types of assault carries a five-year mandatory-minimum sentence; home invasion and sexual assault carry 10-year mandatory minimums.
Now, to be sure, there are people who commit these crimes in the most offensive of ways who do need to be locked up for the security of the community at large, but doesn’t the idea of locking up a 14-year old for a minimum of 10 years seem noxious to you? Keep in mind that absolutely no one has any discretion to reduce these mandatory-minimums, except, again, prosecutors, who get to wield the magic wand of substituting a lesser charge as a stick to induce pleas.
But wait, there’s more. Connecticut has another equally offensive statute that needs mending: C.G.S 46b-137, as explained in State v. Canady. This is a statute that prevents the prosecution from using statements made by juveniles without a parent or guardian present in juvenile court proceedings. If, however, that statement was made under the exact same circumstances and the case ended up in adult court, the statement suddenly becomes admissible. The legislature has now had 10 years to fix this and has failed to do so.
The legislature, if it were as concerned about all children as it professes to be, would enact legislation that would make mandatory-minimums not applicable when dealing with juveniles in adult court. Let a judge decide what the appropriate punishment in each case should be, not a bunch of part-time legislators who have no experience in the criminal justice arena. The legislature would ensure that statements taken from vulnerable juveniles without a parent or guardian present would never be admissible in any court. But instead, what we see is a legislature that perpetuates the notion that children who make mistakes aren’t worth protecting because it’s so much easier to call them a criminal and throw away the key.•