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Adolescent Offenders Shouldn't Be Tried As Adults

As most parents are acutely aware, and scientists have proved, the brains of adolescents are not fully developed. That's why youngsters are often impulsive, reckless and blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions.

It's also why adolescents should be treated differently than adults in the criminal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged this, and the Connecticut General Assembly should as well. Two bills before the legislature would limit the application of adult sentencing rules for those who committed serious crimes as adolescents. Both bills are humane, sensible and science-based, and should pass.

In three decisions since 2005, the Supreme Court has held that young people under 18 who commit crimes cannot be sentenced to death or to life without possibility of parole, and that many young offenders get a "second look" at some point in their sentences. The court stressed that because their brains are still developing, young people are less culpable for crimes than adults and more likely to rehabilitate themselves.

The state's Sentencing Commission has proposed two bills to bring the state in line with the court's reasoning.

At present there are about 275 people in Connecticut prisons serving sentences of 10 years or longer for crimes committed when they were younger than 18. About 50 are serving sentences of 50 years or more. The first proposed law would make these inmates eligible for a parole hearing after they served 50 percent of their sentences or 10 years, whichever is longer.

Note that this doesn't guarantee their release, it merely gives them a chance to show they have matured, feel remorse and are pointing themselves in the right direction (the parole board is not an easy sell). This is the "second look" the high court spoke of. It makes sense because some of these young people do turn themselves around in prison.

The second bill would eliminate mandatory life-without-parole for juveniles and allow judges to consider brain science and other youth-related factors in sentencing juveniles. For example, it might be helpful for a judge to know that teens are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure.

Connecticut tries 14- to 17-year-olds who commit serious crimes as adults. The problem with that can be simply stated: They aren't adults.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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