The third time’s the charm when it comes to juvenile sentencing reform, according to state Republicans.
Testimonies from government officials, medical professionals, advocates and family members of juvenile offenders in front of the Judiciary Committee Wednesday afternoon skewed in support of a bill that would allow criminal offenders the chance to receive parole for crimes committed as minors.
This is the third consecutive year a version of this “second look” bill has been raised by state Democrats. In the previous two years, the bill passed the House but died each time before reaching a vote on the Senate floor. According to the CT Mirror and CT News Junkie, Democratic leaders did not call a vote on the bill in 2014 due to a planned Republican filibuster and 20 controversial amendments that Republicans had attached to the bill.
But this year, Republican State Sen. John Kissel, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said the bill will see strong support from both parties.
“I see the final version [of the bill] having an extraordinarily high chance of passing out of this committee and this legislature this year,” Kissel said at the hearing.
The bill aims to align Connecticut’s juvenile sentencing policies with two U.S. Supreme Court rulings from the past five years. A 2010 decision from the Graham v. Florida case states that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses, while the decision from the 2012 Miller v. Alabama case makes mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders without the possibility of parole unconstitutional.
Last week, in the State of Connecticut v. Ackeem Riley, the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for a man sentenced to life without parole for a murder he committed months prior to his 18th birthday. However, the majority opinion, penned by Justice Andrew McDonald, deferred to the state legislature in implementing the Graham v. Florida decision.
At the hearing Wednesday, Kissel noted that, prior to the decision’s release, Republican senators and members of the Sentencing Commission had met and compromised over the bill.
Republican Minority Leader Len Fasano said that, in prior years, the state’s nonpartisan Sentencing Commission, in working on the bill, had overextended beyond what Republicans felt the Supreme Court decisions called for. He added that this year, the two parties came to an agreement by adding certain specifications to the bill. These adjustments include the limitation of the bill to only Class A and B felonies — two of the most serious crimes recognized under Connecticut law — as well as the notification of victims if and when a criminal offender’s sentence would be reviewed.
Proponents of the sentencing reform have cited scientific evidence showing brain development which occurs during and after adolescence, arguing that, as offenders age into adulthood, they cannot always be held responsible for the same crime they committed as a youth. Proponents also say that with rehabilitation programs provided by the Department of Corrections, offenders can prove their maturity.
Marc Levin, policy director of Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice initiative based in Texas, noted that the age of juvenile offenders often correlates to issues of mental illness, child abuse and neglect. He added that when offenders are out of environments that may have contributed to these conditions, cognitive and behavioral therapy can help address their delinquency.
However, State Victim Advocate Natasha Pierre voiced concerns with the bill.
“From the victim’s perspective, the age of the offender does not lessen the impact suffered by the victim,” Pierre said during her testimony.
Pierre added that although the state’s Office of the Victim Advocate agrees with some of the bill’s principles, the bill must be inspected with concern to the victims of the juvenile offenders. Pierre cited an example of a defendant who had attempted multiple murder-carjackings as a juvenile, as well as the problems that might arise when a released defendant returns to live in the same community as his or her victim.
Still, Kissel said at the hearing that the bill would address the Supreme Court decisions in a cost-effective manner, enabling a drop in appeals, as well as placing less of a burden on the public defender’s office and the state attorney’s office.
John Santa, chairman of the board of the Malta Justice Initiative, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, stressed that “second look” legislation aims not to free offenders but merely to review their sentences.
Alan Bruce, director of criminal justice at Quinnipiac University, concurred, adding that although victim needs are also of utmost concern, individuals considered for a second chance will have still served lengthy prison sentences and will have “most certainly been punished for their acts.”
Santa also said that Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Second Chance Society Initiative, a set of criminal justice reform proposals unveiled in February, sets the tone for the way proposed legislation like the “second look” bill are approached this session.
“There’s a climactic change in the whole concept of criminal justice,” Santa said.