It’s been nearly two decades since Helen McCown’s teenage son was taken from her.
The 17-year-old was sentenced to 65 years in prison, without chance of parole, for his involvement in a murder in New Haven.
“He was just a kid,” said McCown, who insists her son was just a passenger in a car involved in a drive-by shooting. “He deserves a second chance.”
She is hoping that three recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings will force the state to amend the lengthy sentences handed out to juveniles who break the law, and that the state’s Sentencing Commission will soon help give her son that second chance.
The commission is considering a proposal that would outlaw long sentences with no chance of parole for those under 18 who commit crimes.
Juveniles sentenced to 60 years or more would be up for parole after 30 years. All other juveniles sentenced to more than 10 years would be eligible for parole halfway through their sentences.
For McCown, it means the chance that her son would be released before he turns 82 in 2059. Under this proposal, he would become eligible for parole when he’s 47 years old, in 2024.
“This would affect a significant number of prisoners,” Joseph M. Shortall, a Superior Court judge and chairman of the Sentencing Commission, said at the panel’s most recent meeting, in September.
Ruling based on science
Connecticut prisons now house 192 inmates who entered as juveniles and sentenced to more than 10 years, 78 of whom are not eligible for parole, according to the State Department of Correction and the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Parole.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to death or to life in prison without a chance of parole, even in homicide cases. The court based its decision on research showing that the frontal lobe of the brain is still maturing in the teen years, and that children struggle with the ability to control the impulses needed to make good decisions.
In Connecticut, the state Correction Department reports there are currently five adults serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. But there are dozens of other inmates in Connecticut prisons who entered the system as juveniles, and who judges determined would serve long sentences without chance of parole.
“Some of them are serving 120-year sentences,” said Erika Tindill, chairwoman of the Board of Pardons and Parole.
Connecticut law allows juveniles to be sentenced to life without possibility of parole for capital felonies, which include the murder of a police officer or a child, murder for hire, the murders of multiple victims and murders committed during a kidnapping or rape.
For other crimes, judges can impose long or concurrent sentences that are arguably life sentences.
“It’s semantics, really,” Vito Castignoli, the trial lawyer for Terrell Canady, said in June, the day the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to sentence a child to life without parole.
Canady was 15 when he was imprisoned in 2004 for killing a prostitute. He will be at least 75 years old before he can be released.
“He’s going to spend his life in jail,” Castignoli said.
That might change, however. The proposal the Connecticut Sentencing Commission is considering would affect any juvenile sentenced to 10 years or more. The proposal also includes a plan to remove the housing and employment barriers that those released from prison face because of their criminal backgrounds.
“Many of these individuals have undergone remarkable rehabilitation and change in prison,” Sarah French Russell, with the Legal Clinic at Quinnipiac University School of Law, said in a statement. “Public safety would not be jeopardized because a second look would not guarantee release. Release would be possible only if, after thorough review, it is established that an individual has truly rehabilitated.”
But Kevin Kane, the state’s chief prosecutor, wants to make sure whatever change is agreed upon is fair to crime victims.
“This really is a two-sided picture,” he said at the commission meeting.
Who should decide?
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year states that it is cruel and unusual punishment to impose life sentences on juveniles without “some meaningful opportunity” for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.
The state can comply with the decision in two ways, either by amending the state law or by leaving it to the courts to decide on a case-by-case basis the appropriateness of sentences.
“There is going to be litigation if this is not fixed,” Kane told the Sentencing Commission.
“It would be better for the legislature to take a crack at this first,” echoed Michael Lawlor, the governor’s criminal justice adviser and former House chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Lawmakers are relying on the commission to get the key criminal justice stakeholders — representatives from the governor’s office, prosecutors, public defenders, victim advocates, judges, etc. — to reach agreement and provide them with recommended legislation to address this. It will then be up to the General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to turn the recommendations into law.
2,500 children nationwide
Many other states have begun to respond to the Supreme Court rulings, too. Nationwide, Human Rights Watch estimated there are more than 2,500 children serving life sentences without the chance of parole.
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania last month signed into law a bill that eliminates mandatory life sentences for children. The bill gives judges the power to determine sentences, although the parameters are that for murder, a judge can sentence a child to no less than 35 years and as much as a life sentence without the chance of parole.
Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California and the legislature changed the law after their state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s current sentencing laws for juveniles were unconstitutional according to the precedent the U.S. Supreme Court has set. The next month Brown signed into law the requirement that judges reconsider sentences after the inmate serves 15 years, and gives them the ability to reduce the sentence to 25 years, if appropriate.
No lawsuits have been filed yet in Connecticut that state officials are aware of, but they expect that to happen if the law is not changed.
A public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 29 at the state Capitol complex on Connecticut’s proposal, and the Sentencing Commission is expected to approve recommendations at its Dec. 20 meeting.
McCown plans to take the bus from her home in Buffalo, N.Y., to Hartford to share her story at the public hearing in hopes that it may somehow help her son.
While she’s in town, she plans to visit her son for the two hours MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield allows.