On Third Try, Youth Parole Bill Clears the State Senate [Courant]

April 22, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

After two failed attempts, a criminal justice bill that would give juveniles serving lengthy prison terms the chance for parole cleared the state Senate Monday.

The measure, which passed on a bipartisan vote of 31 to 5, now heads to the House of Representatives, which has endorsed versions of the bill in each of the past two years.

The legislation would bring the Connecticut into compliance with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding lengthy prison sentences for those who commit crimes before their 18th birthdays. The court ruled in Miller vs. Alabama that life sentences without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional, citing an evolving understanding of brain science and juveniles’ underdeveloped capacity for understanding the consequences of their behavior.

“What it does not do is guarantee that anyone will be released from incarceration,” Sen. Eric Coleman, a Bloomfield Democrat and co-chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee. “But rather does provide for an opportunity for [release]” for those who committed crimes as juveniles.

Sen. John Kissel of Enfield, the ranking Republican on the judiciary committee, stalled the bill in both 2013 and 2014. But this year, he agreed to support it after language was added to ensure crime victims would be notified of an impending parole hearing.

“This bill has been a long time in coming,” Kissel said. “We have recognized as a state…that young people can be redeemed and that a young person’s brain [is] not [as] mature as…an adult’s.”

The legislation retroactively eliminates life sentences for capital felony and arson murder, and convictions for murder with special circumstances, for offenders who committed these crimes when they were juveniles. It also requires criminal courts to consider certain mitigating factors that are characteristic of youth in sentencing.

The bill also establishes new rules that can make someone eligible for parole sooner if he or she was under 18 when the crime was committed and was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.

Senate President Martin Looney said the measure was “a very important bill,” both because it would bring the state into comportment with the U.S. Supreme Court and reflects current thinking on adolescent psychology.
Added Republican Leader Len Fasano of North Haven: “The Supreme Court has spoken and we need to abide by the law.”

Kissel said the policies spelled out in the bill do not coddle criminals. “For my constituents that are concerned about crime and punishment or for those who are aware of heinous crimes that are done by young people, I can assure them that the right to review a young person who has been incarcerated does not necessarily mean they will be released,” he said.

But, he added, “if we can break the cycle of recidivism, we are doing a benefit to taxpayers and reducing victimization…that’s a good thing.”

The measure now moves to the House for consideration.