Church, lawmakers call for reforms to criminal sentencing of youth

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PROVIDENCE — Both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees recently heard testimony regarding proposed legislation aimed at reforming the sentencing of individuals for crimes committed during their youth. Senate bill 2846, sponsored by Sen. Harold M. Metts (D-Providence), and House bill 7676, sponsored by Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski (D-Providence), seek to eliminate life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders by permitting parole eligibility after 15 years served for an offense committed during youth.

Father Bernard Healey submitted testimony on behalf of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference in support of the bills, emphasizing the importance of fair and just sentencing of youth in Catholic social teaching.

“The Rhode Island Catholic Conference does not question that violent and dangerous youth need to be punished for crimes committed and confined for their safety and that of society,” he said. “But we do not support provisions that treat children as though they are equal to adults in their moral and cognitive development.”

Church teaching calls for a criminal justice system aimed at restorative justice, including a sentencing process that takes into account factors like age and possibility for rehabilitation. Pope Francis, in a speech delivered before the U.S. Congress in September and quoted by Father Healey in his testimony, insisted on the importance of a justice system aimed at reform rather than punishment for its own sake.

“A just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation,” he said.

Jesuit Father John Cecero, provincial of the USA Northeast Province of the Society of Jesus, based in New York, also submitted testimony in support of the bills.

“Because of the differences in the brains of children and adults, children have a greater capacity than adults to rehabilitate,” he wrote. “Yet current law in Rhode Island denies many juveniles the chance to show that they have grown, matured, worked hard to change their ways and made amends for their mistakes.”

Nationally, the Supreme Court has declared life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide offenses committed by youth, as well as mandatory life-without-parole sentencing for youth, unconstitutional. Utah recently became the 16th state to entirely ban life-without-parole sentences for offenses committed prior to age 18.

During a phone interview with Rhode Island Catholic, Sen. Metts spoke about the bill and pointed out that if passed, the legislation would still allow the parole board to deny parole to anyone not yet ready to reenter society.

“It’s not that it’s an automatic thing. In the extreme cases, there’s no way that the parole board or the judge would grant parole,” he said. “If the system is geared right with rehabilitation and less toward punishment, then there are lives that can be turned around and go on and become productive members of society.”

During the same Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Metts also introduced a bill to limit the length of time and situations in which a person can be placed in solitary confinement. The bill, which aligns with Church teaching on extreme forms of punishment and joins a similar bill in the House, is concerned with the mental health impact of solitary confinement and its ultimate effectiveness as a method for rehabilitation.

“Some people are worse coming out than when they put them in,” said Metts. “The benefits of solitary confinement are being questioned and I think rightly so.”

According to Metts, the proposed reforms to the sentencing and rehabilitation processes reflect a growing awareness of the need for a more humane criminal justice system focused on reducing the recidivism rate, restoring communities and relieving the costs associated with state incarceration.

“I think over time we’re seeing people understand that yes, we do want to have public safety, we do want to protect the public, but, by the same token, once someone has served their time, they deserve a chance to turn their lives around and become productive members of society,” he said.

Both the House and Senate bills related to the criminal sentencing of juvenile offenders, as well as the bills limiting solitary confinement, were held for further study.