With several inmates in Connecticut serving more than 60 years for crimes committed as children, the question facing legislators is not whether they will change state laws in reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court decision barring mandatory life sentences for juveniles, but how far the change will go.
“We have the United State Supreme Court saying we have to do something,” said Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
But there are conflicting opinions on what exactly the court’s decision requires the state to do.
Some say the state just needs to give judges discretion at the time of sentencing, so they can consider the defendant’s age, upbringing and brain development before imposing a lengthy sentence.
A bill being considered by the Judiciary Committee would allow an child offender who is serving a 60-year sentence be eligible for parole after 30 years. For juveniles sentenced to more than 20 years, the bill would allow them to be eligible for parole halfway through their sentences.
“It doesn’t say they have to get out, just that they will be given the opportunity to get out,” said Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, the other co-chairman of the committee. “I was never in agreement that the courts should treat juveniles the same as adults.”
For Anthony Luther’s son, who was sent to jail at age 15 for sexual assault, the change in state law means the young man could come home before he is 45.
“He was driven by hormones, not his brain,” Luther told the committee during a public hearing Monday at the state Capitol complex.
But for John Cluny, it means the person who murdered his wife and son nearly 20 years ago would not be getting the punishment Cluny thinks is deserved.
“He didn’t only commit one murder, he committed two murders,” he said, calling the legislative proposal “sickening.”
Currently, 31 inmates in Connecticut are in adult prisons serving 60 years or more because of crimes committed before they were 18, according to the State Department of Correction. One, Keith Belcher, was 14 when sentenced to 60 years for first-degree kidnapping.
In total, Connecticut prisons house 192 inmates who entered as juveniles and are sentenced to more than 10 years. Of those, 78 are not eligible for parole, according to the state Department of Correction and the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Parole.
Nearly all of these inmates are black or Hispanic, according to a joint report from the law schools at Quinnipiac University and Yale.
“Many individuals who entered the Connecticut prison system as teenagers have grown into mature adults eager to contribute to society. Studies make clear that people who are incarcerated as children can turn their lives around,” the report concludes.
If the General Assembly does not enact legislation that provides the possibility of parole for every inmate sentenced to more than 20 years for a crime he committed as a juvenile, the Connecticut Supreme Court may force it to do so. The state’s highest court has decided to hear a case in which a 17-year-old Hartford resident was sentenced to 100 years for his involvement in a gang-related drive-by shooting in 2006, where one person died and two others were injured.
In a split decision earlier this year, the state’s Appellate Court interpreted the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision as saying that judges must have flexibility in cases involving juveniles. The judges did not state that such sentences without parole are unconstitutional.
“The court exercised discretion in fashioning the defendant’s sentence,” the decision reads. “The court in this case was not obligated to sentence the defendant to life without the possibility of release. Indeed, our sentencing statutes permit the court a great deal of discretion in determining an appropriate sentence.”
When imposing the sentence, the judge said that Ackeem Riley “should never be on the streets again,” and that the change for rehabilitation was unlikely.
Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe