There are 31 inmates in Alaska’s prison system who committed their crimes when they were juveniles, but were 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 wants to change that: Sen. Tom Begich, a Democrat from Anchorage, recently introduced a bill called the “second look” law that would give the inmates a chance to make their case to the parole board after 15 years of incarceration.
If that bill became law, it would give inmates like Brian Hall a chance at parole.
“The first thing that came to mind is hope,” said Hall. “It offers hope to those who have a virtual life sentence.”
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In the spring of 1993, when Hall was 17, he stole a .44 handgun and killed two people during 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, has sought counseling for his adolescent drug addictions and has taken classes offered at the Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai. He also got married and adopted a son.
Under his current sentence, he won’t get a chance to get out of prison 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, D.C.-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 U.S. Supreme Court cited the research on brain development to find that mandatory 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 won’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.
Some victims, however, said they think the legislation is misguided.
Edie Grunwald is the chair of Alaska’s Parole Board Her 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.”
She said that, as a 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.
Grunwald said 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, she wants legislators to better take victims into account. 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.
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 denied 77% of applications for discretionary parole 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.
Begich said that he expects the bill to face tough opposition in the Legislature.
“Do I think it’ll pass? No, I don’t, I’m afraid to say,” he said. “I’m going to try to get it passed. But I’m afraid it won’t, for reasons that have nothing to do with our belief in the redemptive power of humanity.”
Hall said for inmates like him the bill is the only chance they’ll have at living a productive life outside the walls of a prison. He wants to show the parole board how he’s changed. He also wants to do it for the families of the victims.
“I feel like I owe it to the victims’ families to make a change. And when I leave this world I don’t want my footprint to be as a person who took to men’s lives, I want it to be as a person who changed to become something better than what he was,” he said.
This story has been corrected the Supreme Court finding on juvenile life without parole sentences. The court found that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.