Op-ed: Juvenile offenders need a second chance

As the president of a university, I can confirm what all parents know — that the children who arrive on our campus have a lot of growing up left to do. They’re wonderful, of course, but they can also be impulsive, inclined to make poor decisions and easily influenced by peer pressure.

At the same time, they are open to real change, poised to make great leaps of understanding on the way to a greater potential for responsibility. Managing and encouraging this process is what our institution is all about.

Op-ed submit bugWe know — and science has established this — that the mind of a teenager is not a finished product. So it seems incredible that very young people are given lengthy sentences without chance of parole, and even life sentences without chance of parole.

Our state treats children who are charged with serious crimes as adults, transferring them to adult courts. Connecticut currently imprisons about 275 people with sentences of over 10 years for crimes that occurred before they turned 18, and about 50 individuals are serving sentences of 50 years or more, most with no opportunity for parole.

Not surprisingly these harsh sentences have fallen largely on the poor, and in particular African American and Hispanic young men. Most are from circumstances where abuse, neglect, drug use and violence were unavoidable features of their early life. The testimonies of some collected in "Youth Matters: A Second look for Connecticut’s Children Serving Long Sentences," produced by law clinics at Quinnipiac University School of Law and Yale Law School, are a sobering read.

“Nick” is serving 38 years without the chance of parole for felony murder. At his trial a co-participant testified that Nick had wanted to back out of a robbery plan but was coerced by his cousin who had been drinking and “flipped” — pointing a gun at Nick and stating, “You’re not punking out on me now.” The cousin confessed to being the shooter, but Nick, who was only 17 at the time, will not be out of prison until he is in his 50s.

These young people committed serious, violent crimes. But to lock them up and throw away the key without taking their youth into account is cruel, and I would argue, from my perspective as a priest, is at odds with Christian duty. We have an obligation as a civil society to be compassionate — and even merciful — particularly where that mercy can give a vulnerable young person a second chance to reach his potential.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and are unconstitutional. The court held that “mitigating qualities of youth” must be considered in sentencing a child, and emphasized that children are “less deserving of the most severe punishments” because of their “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”

Connecticut has an opportunity to bring its laws in line with this more humane perspective. In May 2013, the state House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in support of a bill that would hold juveniles accountable for their actions in a more age-appropriate manner, with better opportunities for earlier parole, and a greater weight placed on the “mitigating qualities of youth.” The bill was not called for a vote in the Senate before the end of the session. The bill (HB 5221) has been reintroduced this year, and it is my hope that the General Assembly will pass this bill.

These young people need a chance to keep growing — like Devon, whose mother is ill with HIV, and who was sent to prison at 16. He has since completed his GED and now works as a hospice volunteer in prison. “I love everything about it,” he wrote in a letter to researchers. “It may sound selfish but it gives me a sense of self worth. I think about my mother and how I’d want someone to do this for her. Growing up changed me. I look at people who are ignorant or who don’t know any better, and I realized that was me….But I respect life now… I’m not the same person.”

The Rev. Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. is the President of Fairfield University

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