Opinion By: Randal Chinnock

I have been involved in criminal justice reform for many years and I must comment on your recent article ”Corey Turner Denied Commutation Of Murder Sentence For Maintaining His Innocence.” I am aware of many similar accounts of incarcerated people who have had years of documented exemplary behavior but are denied parole or commutation because victims’ families oppose it.  I am convinced that the influence of victims’ families on the parole system must be changed. 

Right now, Victims’ families’ opposition is enough to cause parole boards and others to take the “safest” possible course of action – doing nothing. There’s no question that losing a loved one to violence—or having a loved one be victimized by a violent crime—is incredibly traumatic. But families’ statements should not be the reason for denial of parole or commutation of an incarcerated person’s sentence. 

Victims’ families are invited to make impact statements when offenders are sentenced. Judges take these statements very seriously, and they can affect sentencing. This is where victims’ families’ influence should be heard – and where it should end. 

In contrast, when it comes to a parole or commutation hearing, everything that an incarcerated individual has done during their incarceration should be assessed. How many years have they served? Have they grown emotionally? Have they educated themselves? Have they helped others through mentoring, completed programs and demonstrated remorse in a tangible way? Have they had “jobs” or other training in prison? What have they learned? Do they have a support network outside of prison to help them transition to life “outside”? Were they sentenced during a period of extreme sentencing guidelines, such as in the 1990’s? 

The truth is, the U.S. is far behind other Western nations when it comes to how we treat our incarcerated people. In Europe, for instance, a “life sentence” typically means that most individuals are eligible for parole after 15 years (in England and Wales), or 18 years (in France), or 12 years (in Denmark). It’s also true that in the U.S., people of color are much more likely to be serving life sentences: Out of the 203,000 individuals serving life sentences here, 2/3 are people of color. I understand that victims’ families’ pain may never end – and I feel for them. But locking up people unnecessarily incurs a huge cost on society – both in terms of taxpayer dollars and lost opportunities for incarcerated individuals to return to society as workers, siblings, parents, and spouses. 

Many other Western nations and some U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have implemented “second look” programs, where the cases of ALL incarcerated individuals are subject to mandatory review after a period of time, with clear guidance on assessing that person’s growth, remorse, and rehabilitation. This is especially important for aging incarcerated individuals who incur twice the cost to the state for incarceration than younger incarcerated individuals—an average of $60,000-$70,000 a year due to declining health as they age. This, despite the fact that fewer than 2% of people 55 and older who are released from prison return to prison for committing violent crimes. 

Maintaining one’s innocence should also not be grounds for denial of parole or commutation – as it often is in parole hearings in the U.S. Why? Because there are so many examples of wrongful convictions, ineffective representation of counsel during trials and sentencing, and bias at all levels of law enforcement, the judiciary, and corrections – particularly when defendants are indigent and are paired with overworked public defenders, as a recent article in the Harvard Law Review found. We must recognize that not all convictions are just.  Lack of remorse for a crime that the incarcerated person truly did not commit should not be a reason for denial of release.

I urge Governor Lamont’s administration to support a second look program that is focused on the possibility of release for older incarcerated individuals who have served at least 15 to 25 years when earned, particularly when these individuals are over age 55. No one should languish in prison longer than necessary. We as a society tend to judge incarcerated individuals not on their entire life histories – particularly what they’ve accomplished while incarcerated, but — unjustly — on the single worst thing they ever did. Let’s change that.

Randal Chinnock resides in Eastford, Connecticut

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of Connecticut Inside Investigator.

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