The ACLU-CT is committed to ending mass incarceration in Connecticut and the systemically racist disparities inherent to it. Among the more cruel and unjust aspects of the system of mass incarceration is the criminalization of children and young people.
On March 22nd, 2023 ACLU of Connecticut Smart Justice Leader Tracie Bernardi testified in support of S.B. 952 during its public hearing in the Judiciary Committee. The following is her testimony:
Senator Winfield, Representative Stafstrom, Ranking Members Senator Kissel, Representative Fishbein and all the distinguished members of the Judiciary Committee, my name is Tracie Bernardi-Guzman, I am a resident of Waterbury, and a Leader with the Smart Justice Campaign of the ACLU of Connecticut. I am testifying in support of Senate Bill 952: An Act Concerning Parole Eligibility For An Individual Serving A Lengthy Sentence Committed Before The Individual Reached The Age Of Twenty-Five.
I believe in justice, and I believe in fairness, so I believe that SB 952 is the right bill to give people who are incarcerated an opportunity for redemption when they have turned their lives around and moved towards rehabilitation and reinvention. I was incarcerated here in Connecticut for 23 years, beginning when I was 19 years old in 1993. Seven of those years was spent in solitary confinement. I was released in 2016 when I was 42 years old and am now a reentry case manager in Waterbury, a college student, (rent to own) homeowner and most importantly a wife and step-mother to five children, two of whom still live at home. As a young person I grew up in a dysfunctional and traumatic household. I sought love and acceptance in a gang and could not differentiate between what was familiar and what was abuse. When I was sentenced to 30 years in prison, I saw no light at the end of the tunnel and attempted suicide multiple times. Eventually I got to a place where I wanted to live, and as my self-esteem increased, I was able to grow into the person here today. And I’m still growing. As human beings we are all constantly evolving. I’m certainly not the same teenage child I was three decades ago. Sentencing someone to more than 10 years without an opportunity for a second look suggests that change is not possible. I know from first-hand experience that change is extremely possible with the right support. A person who made a mistake can grow up to be an asset to their community, like I am today.
Connecticut has already recognized that people under the age of 18 are less culpable for their choices, but there is further to go. There is not a magic dividing line between young people and adults. Psychologists and neuroscientists have concluded that adolescence brain specifically the decision-making realm of the brain is underdeveloped until at least the age of 26. Adolescents are impulsive and make poor decisions, especially in times of stress or in the presence of other adolescents. They have weak impulse control and struggle at weighing risks and predicting consequences. Adolescence happens on a spectrum, and people who convicted when they were under the age of 26 should receive the same parole opportunities as young people under the age of 18 currently do.
I want to note that nothing proposed in this bill would guarantee a person’s release. What the bill does do is ensure that young people get a second chance once they have had the opportunity to change and become better. As a society, we will be better if we move towards redemption and forgiveness and invest in people and not prisons.
I urge the members of the Judiciary Committee to support SB 952. Thank you for listening to my testimony and I would be happy to answer any questions the committee members have