Juvenile offenders serving long sentences may get chance at parole

Inmates serving lengthy prison sentences for crimes committed as children may be released much sooner than expected, as the House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday that would make dozens of inmates eligible for parole as soon as this fall.

One of those inmates is William Freeman Jr., who has been incarcerated for the last 33 years for his involvement in a murder in New Haven County when he was 15.

If the bill becomes law, 170 inmates who are serving time for offenses committed as juveniles would be eligible for parole after they served 60 percent of their time. For Ackeem Riley, whose involvement at age 17 in a gang-related drive-by shooting in Hartford, it means he would be eligible for parole at age 47 instead of age 117.

“By no means is this an automatic release. It’s the opportunity for a second look at their sentence,” said Rep. Gerald M. Fox III, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

The 137-4 vote by the House is the legislature’s reaction to a trio of recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court restricting state lawmakers from requiring mandatory life sentences without the chance of parole for juveniles. The proposal to offer parole to those sentenced to 20 years or more was first crafted by the state’s Sentencing Commission, a diverse panel that includes the state’s top prosecutor.

Calling the proposal “balanced,” Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said it is “creating a vehicle to justly determine whether someone may be released from confinement and provides the authority to appropriately restrict and supervise those who may be released.”

But will the inmates actually be released?

Most inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses who come before the state's parole board are granted parole, said John DeFeo, executive director of the Board of Pardon and Parole.

But it's unclear what would be the fate of those juveniles convicted of serious offenses -– such as murder and sexual assault.

“These cases have never come before the board before. I don’t know how they will react,” DeFeo said of the panel members. “It’s a different population then we are used to looking at.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that because juveniles are prone to impulsive behavior and less able to understand the full impact of their actions, mandatory life sentences for children convicted of murder is cruel and unusual punishment.

Anthony Luther, whose son was sentenced to 20 years for sexual assault he committed at age 15, knows this all too well.

“He was driven by hormones, not his brain,” Luther told legislators during a public hearing in March.

But some think this initiative sends the wrong message to criminals and that the effort oversteps in what the court decisions actually require. The decision bars state laws from requiring judges to sentence those juveniles convicted of murder to life without parole. 

In Connecticut, nine juvenile offenders are currently serving life without the chance of parole. Nationwide, there are 2,589, reports Human Rights Watch.

“This is not the time to be doing this,” Rep. Frank Nicastro, D-Bristol said.

The former longtime youth officer in Bristol schools said, "Giving them the opportunity for parole sends the wrong message. Tough times require tough dealings."

The others to vote no were Reps. Catherine Abercrombie and Emil Altobello, Democrats of Meriden, and Tim Ackert, a Republican of Coventry.

The idea of such a change upsets John Cluny, whose wife and son were murdered in the early 1990s by their 15-year-old neighbor in Norwich.

"I have strong feelings he should be executed, or at least spend his life in prison, not release him," Cluny said.

But Joseph Shortall, the leader of the Sentencing Commission and a Superior Court judge, said the proposal strikes the right balance. If the legislature decides not to act, then the courts undoubtedly will, he said.

“It will be a litigation free-for-all. [Legislators] are avoiding a long period of litigation by doing what’s right and appropriate now,” he said.

Heather Wood, the public defender for Riley, is closely watching the legislature. Wood said the Connecticut Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of the Hartford teen serving 100 years for the drive-by shooting, but she is eager to see if lawmakers work it out first.

Ahead of the pack

If adopted, Connecticut would become the fifth state to amend its laws in reaction to the high court decision last spring barring mandatory life sentences for murder, reports the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

California and Wyoming both have changed their laws to require that inmates be offered the opportunity for parole after serving part of their sentences. South Dakota, Pennsylvania and North Carolina replaced the mandatory life sentences with discretion for the judges at the time of sentencing.

Sarah Brown, the director of the criminal justice project at NCSL, a national non-partisan think tank, said at first glance, Connecticut's proposal goes further than the changes in the other states. She said that since the legislation in Connecticut would impact anyone serving lengthy sentences, and not just those serving life, "That's more progressive. It looks like Connecticut took a step further."

Shortall said he is proud that Connecticut may go further than other states.

“It is a good-faith effort to take the rational of the U.S. court decisions,” he said outside the House chamber Tuesday before the vote. “The law didn’t have to go this far. This follows the spirit of the decisions.”

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Fox’s co-chair, said it will be taken up before the legislative session adjourns in two weeks.

"No question the Senate will take it up,” Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said Tuesday.

Coleman said he expects there to be opposition, pointing out the split vote on the bill before his committee.

"Many members are concerned about appearing to be soft on crime," he said.

Asked last week about the bill, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he has not yet formed an opinion. A spokesman Tuesday said that the administration “is continuing to review this bill.”

See the list of the 170 inmates currently incarcerated for 20 years or more for crimes committed as juveniles here.

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