Bill would give juveniles with long prison sentences a chance at parole By Lex Treinen, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage - April 5, 2021
There are 31 inmates in Alaska’s prison system who committed their crimes when they were juveniles but tried and sentenced as adults. Some of them face long prison sentences without the possibility of getting out on parole for decades.
One Alaska senator recently introduced a bill called the “second look” law that would give them a chance to make their case to the parole board after 15 years of incarceration.
“The first thing that came to mind is hope,” said inmate Brian Hall, who would get a chance at parole if the bill were to become law. “It offers hope to those of those who have a virtual life sentence.”
In the spring of 1993 when Brian Hall was 17, he stole a .44 handgun and killed two people at an alcohol-fueled confrontation at a bonfire in Stuckagain heights. He’s 45 years old now and after spending the last 28 years in prison, says he is a different person. He has his GED, he sought counseling for his adolescent drug addictions and has taken classes offered at Wildwood Correctional Center. He got married and adopted a son. Under his current sentence, he wouldn’t get a chance to get out until 2046, when he’ll be 70 years old.
“There’s a lot of us in here that came as juveniles that are changed people, we just need to be given that chance to prove to the legislators or the lawmakers or the parole board that we are different people,” he said.
Advocates say research on human brain development backs up that position. “What the brain science is saying is that children aren’t mini-adults, and we shouldn’t treat them as such,” said Marcy Mistrett, a senior fellow at The Sentencing Project, a Washington DC-based group that advocates for prison reform, “There is a distinct difference between adolescence and adulthood. And that should be understood in the context of the law.” In the early 2000s, the US Supreme Court cited the research on brain development to find that life sentences for juveniles without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional, since juveniles don’t have the same moral culpability as adults. Many states have curtailed the use of harsh sentences on minors. But that still leaves inmates like Hall who wouldn’t get a chance at parole until he enters old age.
Mistrett said that many other states have proposed similar “second look” bills, but Alaska would be one of just a few who have passed them.
But some victims said they think the legislation is misguided.
Edie Grunwald is the chair of Alaska’s Parole Board, whose 16-year-old son was murdered by other teens in 2016. She said brain science, while it describes a normal teenage human brain, doesn’t take into account the brains of teens involved in violent murders, which she said are “beyond the scope of any teenage brain theory that might be out there.” And she said that as victim herself, the science doesn’t take into account justice.
“My 16-year-old will never have the opportunity to have his teenage brain developed and get a second chance,” she said.
She said that pushing this bill through the Legislature sidesteps the decisions that judges make using their discretion about the prospects for an offender to rehabilitate.
“There’s an opportunity – and there has been – for rehabilitation and such, I’m not saying that there’s not, but this isn’t earned. This is circumventing the system for somebody’s pet project,” she said.
Not all victims are opposed to the bill, said Victoria Shanklin who leads Victims for Justice, an Anchorage-based advocacy group that helps victims and families affected by violent crime find resources.
“I can think of instances where people would fall on both sides of it being in favor or against it,” she said.
But she said that she wants legislators to do better to take into account victims. Shanklin said that her group wasn’t consulted about the bill or a recommendation by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission that proposed it.
The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Tom Begich, a Democrat from Anchorage, said that’s because the bill wouldn’t affect victims’ rights, since inmates would still go before a parole board where victims have a chance to testify.
But Grunwald said that’s misleading since statistically, victims rarely attend parole hearings because they don’t want to reopen wounds left by offenders.
The parole board chaired by Grunwald denies 77% of applications in 2020 according to the Anchorage Daily News, one of the higher rates in the country.
It’s not clear exactly how many of the 31 inmates who went to prison as juveniles would be affected by the legislation since many now have sentences shorter than 15 years. But Begich said that it’s fundamentally a moral issue.
“I don’t care whether it’s one person, whether it’s 20 persons or whether it’s 200 persons, our system should be fair,” he said.
And Begich said that he expects it to face tough opposition in the Legislature.