Joette Katz Authors CT Law Tribune Article, "Connecticut Begins to Confront Racial Disparities in Mandatory Minimum Sentencing"

Last week, in State v. Belcher, an opinion authored by Justice Mullins, a unanimous Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the trial court denying the defendant's motion to correct an illegal sentence. The court held that the sentencing court had abused its discretion when it substantially relied on materially false information in imposing a 60-year sentence; specifically, that the defendant, a Black teenager, was a ''charter member'' of a mythical group of teenage ''superpredators.'' As the state's Supreme Court noted, "[i]t was the prism through which the court viewed this defendant" in concluding that the sentence had been imposed in an illegal manner.

The court cited extensive research data and empirical analysis to articulate why the sentencing court's reliance on the materially false superpredator myth was baseless and thus an inappropriate sentencing consideration, especially detrimental to the integrity of the sentencing procedure.

Specifically, in describing the prejudice to the defendant, the court explained how the trial court's reliance on that myth invoked harmful racial stereotypes that dehumanized Black children deemed to be unworthy of the benefit of social reforms, grounded in the doctrine of parens patriae and reserved only for white children. As the court painfully reminded us, historically Black children continued to be seen as subhuman, and the superpredator myth fed upon and fueled fears inspired by these dehumanizing racial stereotypes.

The court also explained how the superpredator label improperly treated the characteristics of youth—impulsivity, submission to peer pressure, deficient judgment—as aggravating, rather than as mitigating, factors, in violation of United States Supreme Court authority.

The facts of this case date back nearly 30 years, to 1993, and the court acknowledged that, fortunately, thinking has changed since then in light of important well-regarded medical and social science literature on adolescents. As the opinion points out, racial disparities in sentencing within the state's juvenile justice system during this period were well known. Race predicted detention, and detention predicted incarceration. Of course the role race plays in arrest, detention and incarceration is not confined to juveniles.

Mr. Belcher is very fortunate in that the trial judge made an explicit remark that reflected his thinking. Had the court not been so forthcoming, Belcher's claim that his sentence had been imposed in an illegal manner might well have failed. (His two other claims that his sentence was illegal were predicated on disproportionality and evolving standards of decency in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States constitution and Article First, §§ 8 and 9, of the Connecticut Constitution.)

Furthermore, the court specifically noted it was not basing its decision on the sentencing court's failure to give mitigating effect to Belcher's youth and its hallmark features pursuant to Miller v. Alabama (juvenile offender's age and the hallmarks of adolescence must be considered as mitigating factors before a juvenile can serve a sentence of life without the possibility of parole) See State v. Williams-Bey, and State v. Delgado (parole eligibility afforded by P.A. 15-84, § 1, is an adequate remedy for a Miller violation.) See also State v. McCleese  (as a matter of federal and state constitutional jurisprudence, consideration of youth related mitigating factors under Miller does not even apply when a juvenile's sentence provides an opportunity for parole.)

With Belcher, the court reinforced the line of cases holding that mandatory minimum sentences designed for adult offenders may constitutionally be applied to juvenile offenders tried as adults even when the sentencing judge has not expressly considered the mitigating effects of youth and its associated features as long as the opportunity for parole is in the youth's future. So I repeat, Mr. Belcher won his appeal because the trial judge was forthright in expressly declaring his thinking.

Maybe, if the opportunity presents itself, the Connecticut Supreme Court should revisit that line of cases that rests so heavily on the opportunity for parole in the youth's future. In Cassiano, the court deemed the "individualized sentencing prescribed by Miller" to be "central to an accurate determination that the sentence imposed is a proportionate one" and "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty ...." Then why rely on the possibility of parole as a sufficient substitute?

The majority and dissenting opinions in State v. McCleese are truly two of the finest opinions that I have read in years. But as the concurring opinion points out, the dissent seems to be predicated on principles of fundamental fairness—rooted not in the Eighth Amendment but, rather in the due-process clauses of the federal and state constitutions, claims apparently not raised. As new cases present and variations on a theme become vehicles for addressing nuances or carving out exceptions, the court should remain open to just ripping off the Band Aid. See e.g. State v. Salamon overruling  State v. Luurtsema. Stricter adherence to Miller considerations of youth related-mitigating factors beyond the case's literal meaning would encourage trial judges to articulate their thinking when it comes to sentencing—which, after all, is perhaps the most important responsibility any trial judge will ever have.

As of 2016, all states had laws that allowed the transfer of juvenile court cases to adult criminal courts under certain circumstances. Consequently, it was estimated recently that 200,000 youths are tried as adults annually. Although sentencing a juvenile to life without parole must entail consideration of the Miller factors, why rely on the possibility of parole to allow courts to circumvent this ruling by sentencing youths to mandatory minimums that in many instances can become virtual life sentences? I most certainly recognize that I no longer have a vote in deciding this issue; but that doesn't mean that I can't have an opinion.

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