Lawmakers in the Connecticut Senate approved a bill on Tuesday that would broaden parole eligibility to include certain people serving long sentences for crimes they committed before turning 21 years old.
Under current law, minors cannot serve life without parole. And the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles has discretion to consider parole for people serving sentences of more than a decade for crimes they committed before their legal adulthood, as long as the individual has already served a bulk of their incarceration for the corresponding charges.
Tuesday’s bill would increase the age from 18 to 21, a move that experts and advocates see as further acknowledgement of the developing brains of young adults.
“There’s been a lot of conversation about the cut off, even to the point where people ask why not 24, or why not 23,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, before the vote. “I think the notion in the minds of those folks is that our young people are not fully developed until 25. Having heard the objections of the other side and wanting to make progress … stopping at 21 was the decision that was made.”
It’s unclear how much money the legislation would save the state annually with its passage, partly because it would depend on how many people the state granted parole. But, on average, the annual marginal savings to the state for releasing a person from incarceration is $2,500, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis.
Republicans introduced an amendment to the bill that sought to exclude people who were under 21 at the time they committed certain crimes, such as murder with special circumstances, from parole consideration. The amendment was necessary, they said, to hold accountable young people who commit serious crimes, and preserve the rights of victims, a concern Republican lawmakers often express in their opposition to criminal justice reform.
“All we’re saying is that if we’re going to change our laws so that you’re looked at special because you were under 21,” said Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, “if we’re going to pass this legislation today, all we’re asking for in this amendment is, we understand where you’re going. But for the seven worst crimes, this bill doesn’t apply.”
The amendment was voted down 24 to 12.
As the bill outlines, the Board of Pardons and Paroles would only consider parole for the eligible individuals, who would have already served a bulk of their sentence, by way of an exhaustive process that already exists. Under the law, someone sentenced from 10 to 50 years has parole eligibility after serving the greater of 12 years or 60% of their sentence. If their sentence exceeds 50 years, they’re eligible for parole after serving 30 years.
Neither current law or the bill proposal guarantees that the board would grant parole, nor would the bill erase the years a person already spent behind bars or the barriers some may encounter after their incarceration.
Sen. Martin M. Looney, the highest ranking legislator in the General Assembly, also said the legislation would already likely exclude people who shouldn’t have parole.
“What this means is that there would be an opportunity for an evaluation 20 or 30 years down the road, as to whether the original sentence is still just,” said Looney, D-New Haven. “If there is indeed a transformation in someone’s life, over the course of 20 or 30 years, that transformation should create an opportunity to be recognized, and to be documented, and to have the case be made that the time the person has served is sufficient to meet the interests of justice.”
The Senate’s passage of the legislation comes as criminal justice advocates are concerned about the state’s pause in commutations, a different process under the purview of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Gov. Ned Lamont recently opted to remove Carleton Giles, who spent 33 years as a Norwalk police officer before joining the board, as chair.
Lamont announced the decisions to remove Giles and pause commutations, the shortening of one’s sentence, after Republicans caused an uproar about the number of people approved — 71 in 2022, or 16% of requests, compared to a half-dozen in the previous six years combined. Black residents made up 45 of the commuted sentences.
The governor’s decision to remove Giles, who is Black, after the clamor from Republican lawmakers and some victims of crime, who were mostly white, in a state that disproportionately incarcerates Black people, has raised questions among academics and advocates about Connecticut’s status as a leader in criminal justice reform.
Community organizers have arranged a day of appreciation for Giles later this month at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
The bill approved by the Senate doesn’t have any bearing on the current status of the commutations process, but its full passage in the legislature would put it in line with other reforms made in recent years. Black residents benefit the most from parole in Connecticut, according to data from the board.
On Tuesday, lawmakers greenlighted two additional criminal justice bills: Senate Bill 1194 and Senate Bill 1195.
S.B. 1194 would end sex offense registration requirements for people convicted of a sex crime prior to the expansion of the registry, while S.B. 1195 would prohibit law enforcement officers from stopping a motor vehicle for a secondary traffic violation.
All three bills await another vote in the House of Representatives.