Most people believe in second chances.
Despite the stereotype, many people who have been incarcerated come out with a strong desire to improve their lives and are respond well when given the tools and the resources to successfully use that second chance.
My organization, Community Partners in Action, has been helping people who have been in prison to reintegrate into and serve their communities for 140 years. With the proper support, people can turn their lives around in amazing ways.
But some sentencing schemes make these happy endings nearly impossible. This is particularly true when we incarcerate young people from adolescence to old age, leaving them ill-prepared to make their way in the world after release.
Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposal for a Second Chance Society embraces rehabilitation. There is another measure before the legislature getting less attention, the so-called “Second Look Bill” that would provide for the possibility of parole for people who are serving very long sentences for crimes they committed before their 18th birthdays.
This is the third year the legislature has considered the bill. Twice before, the clock ran out on the legislation. Today Second Look awaits action as the session is coming to a close. Passing the bill is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do.
The bill would provide the right to a parole hearing – but no assurance that parole would be granted – to people convicted of crimes in their youth. They would have to serve 12 years or 60 percent of their sentences, whichever is longer, before they could have a parole hearing. Those sentenced to more than 50 years would be eligible after 30 years. There are about 150 people in Connecticut prisons right now who could be affected by the bill. They are serving lengthy, and in some cases, life sentences.
Take a hypothetical inmate who was convicted at 16 and given a 50-year sentence. He would be 66 upon release, ready for retirement. Of course, he would have no retirement savings and would not have paid into Social Security. That man would almost certainly be on a path to poverty and dependence.
Now imagine a scenario where release comes much sooner. A 46-year-old with no work experience and inadequate job preparation would also encounter many obstacles, however he would have 20 more years to establish himself and build up some savings. His chance of contributing to the community rather than depending on public assistance would be much greater.
Several studies show that there is a point at which the length of punishment at enormous cost has a diminishing return not only to the offender but to society as a whole. Large amounts of public resources spent to incarcerate without tailored considerations divert funds from early childhood education, therapeutic interventions for at-risk youth, and substance-abuse treatment, all of which can produce better outcomes in crime control. We also lose the good that incarcerated people may have done in their careers, their families and their neighborhoods.
The state has an obligation to protect the public from offenders who still pose a danger. Thus a free pass for anyone is not the suggested option here. Second Look calls for the parole board to use a higher standard than it does for people who were convicted of crimes as adults.
For people who committed their crimes as adolescents, the likelihood of rehabilitation is strong. Most people who committed acts that could have led to incarceration as adolescents do not continue to break the law as adults. As Connecticut learned in its highly successful Raise the Age reform, the adolescent brain is still developing. The capacity for judgment and restraint continues to grow into the mid-twenties.
In many cases, the boys and girls who were sent to prison decades ago are very different from the men and women who are warehoused there now. Giving them the chance to prove that seems only fair. It also offers the potential to lighten taxpayer burden and bring valuable members back to our communities.
We have to strike an appropriate balance that is as committed to human reform as we are to punishment.
Maureen Price-Boreland is executive director of Community Partners in Action.