The far-too-easy response to crime in recent American history has been to lock people away and forget about them. This has the benefit of expedience and some emotional satisfaction, but is harmful to society and individuals in countless ways. It has led to a generation damaged by the scourge of mass incarceration, and led policymakers in search of a better way.
Progress has been a hard slog. Anything that smacks of going easy on criminals is anathema to politicians, who worry a fear-based campaign will dislodge them from office, and they’re often right. It takes courage to go against the incarceration-first model of criminal justice.
Connecticut has seen some gains as well as frustrating backsliding. Prison populations are down and some facilities have closed, for which the state should be proud. If nothing else, keeping people behind bars is hugely expensive, and the state has many needs.
There have been other steps forward, too. A Clean Slate law was passed and signed by Gov. Ned Lamont, which allows people who have been out of prison and kept out of trouble for a certain period to have their criminal records erased, which reduces recidivism. But implementation has been slow, leading advocates to worry when people will be made whole again.
The latest frustration concerns commutations, where sentences for people who have already served years or decades behind bars are shortened. Connecticut was finally moving forward on expanding this process, even as only several dozen people a year were affected. But outcry from crime victims and their families led to a pause in that process.
Now the General Assembly is moving ahead on another initiative, one that would offer a chance for some of the youngest offenders in prison. If a bill passed by the state Senate were to become law, people serving prison sentences for crimes committed before they turned 21 years old would be guaranteed access to parole.
They wouldn’t be guaranteed to be released. There would still be a process. But by making this change, the state could recognize that acts people commit when they are young, even the most serious crimes, do not define a person for life.
The proposal is an acknowledgement that people’s brains continue to mature even as they move past their childhood years. The science on this question has advanced, and we know that people are not fully who they will become until well after they’re out of school.
State law currently bars courts from sentencing people to life without parole for crimes committed up until their 18th birthday. This bill would change the age to 21.
Objections in the Senate focused on the heinous nature of some of the crimes that would be included in this change, including murder. But nothing on the table would guarantee an offender’s release. It would mean that person would be eligible for parole.
To truly change our broken criminal justice system, we need systematic changes. Minor fixes at the margins aren’t good enough. And part of that wholesale change means reexamining the kind of sentences we hand down, even for serious crimes.
It won’t always be easy, but ensuring mere eligibility for parole for young offenders is not too much to ask.
This was run on May 12 by Hearst Connecticut Media.