Rep. Toni Walker, a Democrat from New Haven, is holding a microphone and standing up as she addresses her colleagues in the Connecticut state legislature.
Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven. Walker co-chairs the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Connecticut senators gave the final nod to a bill that would broaden parole eligibility to include certain people serving long sentences for crimes they committed before turning 21, sending it to the governor’s desk for his signature. 

After first progressing through the Senate and then the House, where it was amended and sent back for final approval, lawmakers pushed Senate Bill 952 through the finish line on a 30-6 vote Tuesday evening. 

The tally came just before the House spent more than an hour debating and ultimately passing House Bill 6888, a measure addressing the pre-arrest diversion of children, the makeup of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee and plans for transitioning children in the Department of Correction’s custody to the custody of the Judicial Branch. 

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 sentenced on or after Oct. 1, 2015 and 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. 

S.B. 952 increases the age from 18 to 21, a move that experts and advocates see as further acknowledgement of the developing brains of young adults and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which struck down mandatory life imprisonment without parole for youth. The legislation also has strong racial implications, given that Connecticut’s Black residents disproportionately represent the bulk of people incarcerated and benefit the most from parole

The legislation changes the eligibility period from sentences on or after Oct. 1, 2015, to those on or before October 1, 2005, a compromise that was said to have stemmed from earlier negotiations between leadership of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

“There was a conversation down in the House about the 1990s and the perspective that folks had on being tough on crime, and making sure that this bill applied to those individuals but perhaps not going any further than that,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chair of the committee. 

They also added a provision implementing at least a yearlong wait period before the Board of Pardons and Paroles can conduct a hearing for a person eligible for parole under the proposed law, providing time for the state’s attorney, the Department of Correction’s Victim Services Unit, the Office of the Victim Advocate and the Judicial Branch’s Office of Victim Services to prepare for it. 

One of the six lawmakers who voted against the legislation, Sen. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, said he was worried about the Board of Pardons and Paroles potentially undercutting decisions made by the state’s judicial system. 

“A judge, in that particular instance, has the ability to see all the facts, and in sentencing has the ability to listen to aspects about the individual, whether they be young, whether or not their background in some way hinders their ability to be able to comply with the law, and give that weight when making that very critical determination of how long should this person be incarcerated for,” Harding said. 

“I think there is certainly a component to what is trying to be done in terms of understanding that individuals make some very bad decisions, terrible decisions, in their life at a very young age,” he said. “I just question whether or not granting that additional eligibility or authority to the Board of Pardons and Paroles is the correct mechanism.” 

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.

The Board of Pardons and Paroles has remained at the center of several other matters over the course of the 2023 legislative session. Earlier this year, Gov. Ned Lamont announced a pause in the state’s commutations, a different process under the purview of the body. The decision was made after the governor removed Carleton Giles, who spent 33 years as a Norwalk police officer before joining the board, as chair. 

The governor’s action came after Republicans caused an uproar about the number of people approved for commutations — 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

Lamont’s decision to remove Giles, who is Black, after the clamor from GOP lawmakers and some victims of crime, who were mostly white, has raised questions among academics and advocates about Connecticut’s status as a leader in criminal justice reform. In a press conference Tuesday, the state’s top official backed the pause, saying he wants people to have “confidence in the process going forward.” He added that he was open to resuming commutations at the conclusion of the current legislative session. 

The bill approved by the Senate has no bearing on that process. 

In the House, Republican lawmakers continued to raise questions about crime — in a state where violent crime has continued trending downward — during debate for an amended bill addressing how and when children interact with the state’s criminal legal system. A part of the measure that sought to expand police traffic stop information reporting requirements by including pedestrian stops was removed.

The legislation in question, House Bill 6888, instead centers on establishing a team of state officials to develop a plan for mandatory pre-arrest diversion of low-risk children, such as those who have committed a minor crime — like breach of peace. 

It looks to add to the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee — a diverse body of state officials, law enforcement and advocates who evaluate policy related to children in the criminal legal system — by including two people under the age of 26 with lived experience in the system; a community member who may be a family member of a child who has been involved with the system, a person with lived experience in the system or someone who works with youth in the system; a member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe; and a member of the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut.

It also mandates the Judicial Branch to review and update plans for the transition of all children in Department of Correction custody to custody of the Judicial Branch. 

“When I talk to teachers in school systems, people that are dealing with high-risk children, they struggle with the fact that we have implemented a criminal justice system that has very little consequences for children up front,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “And it’s not to say to throw them into prison. But there needs to be a consequence to a child’s action in order to change the behavior …  sometimes it could be a more significant punishment, whether it be a detention, a suspension, or even having to go through the court system, and maybe doing community service. And I think we’ve moved away from that structure.”

Candelora also criticized the Juvenile Justice and Policy Oversight Committee, claiming that it “has done nothing to help our children over the last 10 years.” All the while, other Republicans argued that their ideas haven’t been listened to or considered by the committee. And they maintained that people, regardless of their age, should suffer consequences if they commit a crime. 

Those assertions received significant blowback from Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, who serves on the committee. 

“We spend a lot of time in JJPOC. A lot of hours. Some people say that they come and they’re never heard. I say check attendance and see how many times people have come,” said Nolan, a New London police officer. “Our kids deserve better. Jail is not the place for our kids. Diversion is the place for our kids to try and get them to help to help correct the issues to make them better. Not worse. It’s proven that jail makes our kids worse …  I’m just tired that we don’t help our kids enough.”

Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said that “children in this state are crying out for help.

“They’re crying out for activities that are going to stimulate them and bring them back into society in a way that makes all of us proud,” said Walker, who chairs the committee. “Don’t deny our children these opportunities. Don’t deny them the opportunity to grow and develop like every other child. And don’t mislead with the information that you share. At least let’s talk about it honestly, and truthfully.” 

The legislation passed mostly along party lines on a 96-54 vote. Reps. Pat Boyd and Chris Poulos, both Democrats, joined Republicans in opposition to the bill. It now travels to the Senate, where lawmakers have until the end of Wednesday to debate and pass it. 

Jaden is CT Mirror's justice reporter. He was previously a summer reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune and interned at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He received a bachelor's degree in electronic media from Texas State University and a master's degree in investigative journalism from the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.