Before Ackeem Riley was sentenced to at least 85 years in jail for his involvement in a 2006 gang-related, drive-by shooting in the North End of Hartford, the prosecutor said the teen “should never, ever be on the streets again.”
That was before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a trio of cases that a child’s age and maturity should be considered before courts impose harsh sentences, and that state laws that strip judges of discretion when sentencing juvenile offenders constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” Justice Elana Kagan wrote for the majority in a June 2012 decision. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
Years later — with Connecticut’s legislature failing to update state laws to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings — Connecticut’s highest court will soon decide three cases relating to long sentences imposed on children.
The justices are being asked to decide several things:
- Whether a judge must – not just have the opportunity to – consider age, its mitigating impact on the offense, and the ability for rehabilitation when sentencing those found guilty of crimes committed when they were a child.
- Whether a judge should have the ability to sentence juvenile offenders to life without the chance of parole, and if inmates should have the opportunity to be released after serving part of their sentence.
- Whether shorter but mandatory sentences for non-homicide offenses should bind judges when sending juvenile offenders to jail.
- Whether all inmates currently serving long sentences for crimes committed as juveniles should have their sentences reconsidered. Essentially, should the U.S. Supreme Court decisions retroactively impact Connecticut inmates or should age only be considered in future cases?
The justices’ looming decisions have the potential to impact dozens of inmates throughout the state.
Nearly 200 inmates in Connecticut are serving more than 10 years for crimes they are convicted of committing before they turned 18 years old. Of those, 78 are not eligible for parole, the state Department of Correction and the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Parole reported last year.
There are 31 inmates in Connecticut serving at least 60 years because of crimes committed when they were children, according to the State Department of Correction. One, Keith Belcher, was was sentenced to 60 years for first-degree kidnapping at age 14.
New Haven native Terrell Canady was imprisoned in 2004 for murdering a prostitute when he was was 15. He will be at least 75 years old before he can be released.
Connecticut Democratic legislators — who hold majorities in both the House and Senate — have attempted for the last two years to update sentencing laws so that juvenile offenders will be guaranteed the opportunity for parole after serving 30 years or 60 percent of their sentences.
The House passed the bill earlier this year, but Senate Democratic leaders said after the session had adjourned for the year that they had decided not to bring it up for a vote because Republicans offered dozens of amendments dealing with controversial criminal justice issues. Controversial bills that are expected to spur hours of debate are typically raised early enough each legislative session so the bill does not risk being talked to death as the deadline to adjourn approaches.
Room for interpretation
Jason Casiano was 16 years old when he murdered a sandwich shop clerk in North Haven. Before being sentenced to 50 years in jail nearly two decades ago, the victim’s family and friends told the judge they supported a sentence so long so that Casiano would die in jail.
His case is now one of those before the Supreme Court. Unless the justices rule in his favor, Casiano, who struggled with cognitive impairments and drug abuse before being incarcerated, will serve every day of that 50 years. He is serving time for felony murder, an offense which automatically makes him ineligible for parole.
Saying that Casiano’s sentence is essentially a life sentence, his lawyer relies on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 majority opinion in a non-homicide case when arguing her client deserves the opportunity for parole.
“A State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to such an offender, but must impose a sentence that provides some meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,” U.S. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Several states have since given inmates who committed crimes as juveniles a chance at parole. West Virginia and California inmates get a parole hearing after serving 15 years; Massachusetts after 20 years; Wyoming, Delaware and Pennsylvania after 25 years; and Louisiana after 35 years.
“But those were all legislatively done,” Justice Andrew J. McDonald, a former state Senator, pointed out during oral arguments of the case in September. “So what are we supposed to do in the absence of any legislative action. Assuming we were to agree with you.”
The lawyers for the three defendants are asking the court to order that their clients’ long sentences be reconsidered, and that at some point they be eligible to seek parole. It is uncertain when the justices will release their opinions.