In a pathetic display of political posturing on both sides of the aisle, the Connecticut Senate, for the second year in a row, failed to raise the juvenile-sentenced-as-an-adult “second-look” bill. Oftentimes when one wants to look at systemic inertia and the barriers to enacting sound criminal justice policy, one can usually lay the blame on political gamesmanship.
The Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly voted in favor of the bill to allow juveniles sentenced as adults for serious crimes to have a “meaningful review” of their sentences at an earlier date (many such sentences have no access to parole at all) than those sentences imposed for crimes committed by adults. The House was nearly unanimous in its approval of the proposal as well.
The proposal came about as a result of a line of cases from the U.S. Supreme Court, culminating in Graham v. Florida (2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012), wherein the court determined that juveniles sentenced as adults for serious offenses were in a specialized category for sentencing purposes. That categorization was required due to the firmly entrenched scientific brain studies demonstrating that young minds don’t fully develop until 25 to 30 years of age. Therefore, the court reasoned, even juveniles convicted of major crimes should at some point be given a “second look” to determine whether brain and moral development, educational progress, institutional behavior, and many additional factors would lead criminal justice professionals to believe they could be safely reintegrated into the community under parole supervision.
The legislatively created apolitical Connecticut Sentencing Commission was created for many reasons, one of which was to suggest or review current criminal justice policy in order to determine best practices. A workgroup created by the Sentencing Commission and the commission itself worked for more than two years, going back and forth about every aspect of this juvenile reform proposal. The issues debated included what agency would conduct the “meaningful review;” what level of advocacy would be involved; who would get notice of such a hearing; when would the prisoner be eligible for “meaningful review;” and what criteria would be relevant to assess the potential of release. This was no get out of jail free situation.
The working group itself included the chief state’s attorney, the chair of the state Board of Pardons and Parole, the state victim advocate, a representative of both the public defender’s office and the criminal defense lawyers association, and a former Republican representative and former parol board chair. Concessions ultimately were made by all members of the group to get a consensus proposal. In the end there was a unanimous vote of approval by the Sentencing Commission, which includes every major participant in the criminal justice system as well as agency heads and appointed citizens.
So what went wrong? Republican senators started adding amendments (22 in all) purely on political grounds, adding a death penalty proposal and three-strikes legislation that had nothing to do with the juvenile reform bill. Democratic leaders, who totally supported the bill, were afraid of the political fallout from these potential criminal justice issue filibusters and debates in an election year and demonstrated a lack of will to do the right hing.
So once again the criminal justice system suffers, even when every major participant agrees on the validity of this sound criminal justice proposal. We agree that just because the Sentencing Commission proposes legislation that it should not be rubber-stamped by the legislature or the governor. However this particular proposed bill was vetted at public hearings and was modified substantially so that all the advocacy and adversarial interests were taken into consideration. It is sad to see political leaders who outwardly support and praise the work of the Sentencing Commission then go about sabotaging its efforts to enact sound criminal justice policy.
This was a piece of legislation that political parties could have sat down and agreed upon without the usual political posturing and bickering that we see all too often. Given the history of the bill’s development and the different criminal justice actors who were involved in reaching agreement on a very difficult and complex set of issues, the Senate could have walked the high road in raising and passing this bill. Sound criminal justice policy should be in everyone’s interest. The system continues to suffer because of their lack of judgment and prudence.
Shame on the Senate!