Connecticut lawmakers mull bill to allow parole hearings for young offenders [NHRegister]

March 5, 2015

Article as it appeared in the New Haven Register
NEW HAVEN >> The third time may be the charm.

State Sen. John Kissel, D-Enfield, predicted Wednesday that lawmakers this year will pass changes that would allow parole hearings for juveniles who were given lengthy sentences for crimes they committed when they were younger than 18 years of age.

The law is intended to bring Connecticut into compliance with two U.S. Supreme Court rulings and a recent state Supreme Court finding that applies new studies on the brain development of adolescents to sentences ordered by the courts.

In the Graham v. Florida case, the court said the Constitution does not allow a sentence of life without parole for teens under age 18 for a non-homicide offense. Miller v. Alabama applied this to homicide cases and said sentencing has to consider how different adult brains are from children’s brains.

Considering levels of “maturity and rehabilitation,” the high court found that young offenders should be given a second look at their sentence and a “meaningful opportunity” to be released before their maximum sentence has run.

Lawmakers and advocates testified before the Judiciary Committee on two similar bills being considered this year, one in the House and one in the Senate.

The ability to seek parole would apply to youthful offenders sentenced to 10 years or more.

If the sentence, according to the testimony of Andrew Clark, a member of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, is 50 years or less, the inmate would be eligible to seek parole after 60 percent of his or her sentence was served, or 12 years, whatever is greater.

If the sentence was for more than 50 years, parole would be a possibility after 30 years.

There are almost 200 offenders serving more than 10 years for crimes they committed when they were younger than 18 and some 50 inmates are serving sentences of 50 years or more, Clark testified.

Bills passed the House in 2013 and 2014, but died both years in the Senate.

Last year, it was pulled for consideration in the Senate when Republicans were prepared to offer a number of amendments near the close of the session that would have held up votes on other legislation. Republicans said the Democrats were unwilling to negotiate, but that has changed.

This year, both sides compromised and that version of the bill is expected to be adopted, after some language on notification to victims at both the plea bargaining and sentencing phases has been worked out.

Changes to the Democratic Senate bill requested by state Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, are expected to be in the final bill.

They include:

• The sentence for any youth transferred from the juvenile docket to the adult docket would have to consider brain science and apply it to 14- to 17-year-olds convicted of a class A or B felony, but not a C felony.

• The 10-year sentence would have to be the total effective sentence, not a concurrent sentence.

The science and sociological studies found that youths under age 18 have an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility … that often leads to impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions,” the sentencing commission wrote.

Youths also are more susceptible to peer pressure and have less control over their behavior, but also have an ability to change.

“(B)ecause the character of a juvenile … is not as well formed as that of an adult and because juveniles are more capable of change than adults, even the commission of a serious crime by a juvenile cannot ordinarily be considered as evidence that he or she is of a permanent bad character and incapable of reform,” Clark explained in his written testimony.

Looney, in written testimony, said the “second look” in the form of a parole hearing would have “extremely stringent requirements and burdens of proof” for the young offenders.

“It creates an opportunity — but far from a guarantee or even likelihood — of a second chance for an offender who was under the age of 18 when his or her crime was committed,” he wrote.

Both bills had the blessing of Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane. He said judges likely will put more on the record on what they considered when imposing a sentence.

Quinnipiac law professor Sarah French Russell testified that adopting the law would bring more certainty to sentencing and a fairer, more predictable outcome.

She said the approach under consideration in Connecticut was “a fairly middle of the road response” to changes adopted in other states.

Russell said previously that New Haven has the highest number of young inmates serving more than 12 years in prison and more than 50 years.

According to Quinnipiac’s Legal Clinic, 93 percent of juvenile offenders serving more than 12 years are black or Hispanic, compared to 76 percent of the general prison population.

Kissell said the law will free up public defenders and will be a “cost-effective measure” for the state.

“The third time is the charm,” he said. Kissel said it didn’t happen overnight, but the result is the right one.

Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, wondered if the state was acting too quickly since there are 900 cases in the courts across the country as the result of the 2010 Graham case and the 2012 Miller case.

Robert Farr, a member of the sentencing commission and a former state representative from West Hartford, said the issue is now settled law in Connecticut given the ruling last Friday by the state’s Supreme Court in the Riley case.

It ordered a new sentencing for Ackeem Riley, who was convicted of a revenge-motivated drive-by shooting in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison. He was 17 years and five months old when he commited the murder. His age will now have to be considered when the new sentence is imposed.

The Connecticut Supreme Court did not site the Graham case in the Riley ruling, deferring to the legislature to take up the issue of a “second look” parole hearing.

This year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is promoting a “second chance society” initiative that will look at ending mandatory miminum sentences for nonviolent drug possession; make it easier to get pardons; and speed up parole hearings for low-risk inmates.