HARTFORD – A bill to expand parole eligibility for prisoners who committed serious crimes between ages 18 to 25 led lawmakers to debate a deeper question — what does it mean to be an adult?
Republican lawmakers on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee argued that the proposal, which makes it possible for people who committed a serious crime when they were under the age of 25 to be eligible for parole after 60 percent of their sentence is served, or after a minimum of 12 years, was inconsistent with the way that society has defined adulthood in other matters of law.
State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said that while he understood the arguments of experts who said that the brain was not fully developed until the age of 25, there exist many other things that young people were allowed to do regardless — such as joining the military, smoking marijuana, gambling and drinking alcohol. Kissel said it didn’t make sense to consider young people adults in these contexts, but then give a “carve out” for young people who committed serious crimes.
“It doesn’t make sense to me. It seems like we are doing this just for those who have committed some of the worst crimes that are out there on our books,” Kissel said during a meeting of the Judiciary Committee on Monday. “While I believe in a second chance society, this is a bridge too far for me.”
State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, echoed Kissel. He said he felt the lawmakers needed to establish a “bright line” separating where childhood ends and adulthood begins.
But Dubitsky also acknowledged the testimony during the public hearing on the proposal — stories about people who were incarcerated for long periods, who changed their lives and after leaving prison are working to help others avoid making bad decisions.
“I took a lot of that testimony to heart,” said Dubitsky. “Clearly, there are people in prison, and who have recently been released from prison, who could help the cause of preventing violent crime. And we as policymakers need to recognize that — that we need to do what we can to make sure that the right people are released, that they can help.”
In a public hearing earlier this month, of people who submitted testimony, 260 were in support, and nine were opposed.
One of the people who testified, Khalid Ibrahim, has been in prison since he was 22 years old, when he was charged with murder. He wrote in a letter to the Judiciary Committee that he had been with a person who committed murder and was told that he would either have to testify against that person or face a felony murder charge. He said he refused.
“I was ignorant, immature, mentally and emotionally underdeveloped,” he wrote.
Ibrahim said his time in prison allowed him the opportunity to mature, to learn empathy and to accept responsibility for his actions. But he said that he has gotten to the point where no further rehabilitation is necessary.
“I’m today a 53-year-old man ready to join society in a meaningful product[ive] way. My character and conduct has substantially changed overtime,” he wrote. “I have seven years left on my sentence. [The Department of Correction] has nothing more to offer me in terms of rehabilitation.”
Dubitsky and State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said they would feel comfortable with a bill that made the age 21, rather than 25.
“Raise the age to vote. Because certainly, those are important decisions also,” said Fishbein. “Nowhere near as important [as] the decision whether to take a life.”
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said that the bill would not automatically grant parole to these young people — it would simply allow these individuals to be considered for parole. The decision to grant parole would still rest with the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Winfield noted that the change was being made to take into account the most recent knowledge of brain science, which shows that the brain does not fully develop until the age of 25.
“That brain science is not just about what we are capable of learning, it is about how we respond in certain situations,” said Winfield.
Winfield also said that, unlike voting, which was a considered action, violent crime dealt with “instantaneous, high pressure situations.”
“Here what we’re talking about is situations where young people without the full capacity to rationalize situations have made what is a terrible choice, and that choice may have had a deep impact on the lives of not just that young person but families, the victim,” said Winfield. “And we’re saying that after a certain period of time, you get the opportunity to potentially be reviewed and get relief.”
He noted that the review would take into account the nature of the crime when determining whether or not the person would ultimately be approved for parole.
Other lawmakers raised concerns about the effect that these early eligibility for release would have on the people who were impacted by the crimes committed.
“Sex assault victims deal with trauma for their entire lives, and they have no eligibility for parole from that trauma,” said State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington. “Living victims, knowing that an individual is getting out earlier than they may have anticipated, creates new trauma, it exacerbates current trauma.”
Laura Jacobson, who testified at the public hearing in opposition to the bill, wrote in her testimony that her brother had been murdered by a 16-year-old with a long record of violent crime. She said that the teenager shot her brother while he was held down, tried to steal his car, and then returned a few days later to steal from her brother’s apartment. She said the family accepted a 45 year sentence for the teenager, which she said was “too light a sentence for my family.”
“Knowing that he could get out early and apply for commutation and now possible parole if this law passes has retraumatized us already in just the short few weeks since learning about it,” wrote Jacobson. “I can’t imagine having to do it time after time and how we will deal with it if he is released early.”
But State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Danbury, responded that not all victims have the same reaction to the idea of having the person who harmed them released from prison — particularly after time has passed.
“Sometimes victims and victims’ families forgive in different means. And after 30 years, some things change,” said “Some victims do see, and their families do see the ability of those offenders who made a mistake at a young age to reenter society and to become productive taxpayers.”
The bill was voted out of committee 13-10.