A bill that would have given juvenile offenders a chance to possibly have their sentence reduced by the parole board was just one of hundreds of bills that died last week on the Senate calendar.
The bill was a recommendation of the nonpartisan Sentencing Commission headed by Judge Joseph Shortall. It was based on two years of study, public hearings, and input from both offenders’ and victims’ families. It would have given the 200 people in Connecticut now serving long sentences for crimes that occurred when they were young teenagers a chance at a hearing before the parole board. The parole hearing wouldn’t occur until after they serve 60 percent of their sentence or 12 years, whichever is longer.
The legislation would have also eliminated life sentences for offenders under the age of 18 and would have required the courts to consider certain factors when sentencing juveniles between the ages of 14 and 18. .
Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said the bill ran into Republican opposition in the upper chamber and would have been “filibustered,” if it had been called in the last few days of the session. Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, described it as a bill that would have been a “massive talker.”
The other factor, which played into the defeat of the bill, may also have been the fact that Sen. Eric Coleman, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the bill’s main proponent, was absent during the final few days of the session because of emergency surgery.
It passed the House of Representatives on May 21 almost unanimously by a 137 to 4 vote, but was still on the Senate calendar June 5 when the legislative session ended at midnight.
Capitol sources say Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, was the main obstacle to passing the bill.
Kissel, who was unavailable for comment Monday, sent a statement explaining his concerns with the legislation.
“We seem to be more focused on the offender and not the victim,” Kissel said. “The bill had been before the Senate for at least a couple of weeks. If the majority party was really intent on getting it through the process, they had plenty of time. We were going to have a lot of questions about the bill if it was called.”
In the meantime, the trio of U.S. Supreme Court decisions still stand and could be used by Connecticut inmates, who committed their crimes as juveniles, to bring their cases back to court for re-examination.
“It could be applied without an opportunity to set up a structure handle these cases,” Judge Shortall said Tuesday. “That’s why we offered the legislation.”
He said there are already habeas cases in the pipeline waiting to see if the legislation passed.
Since it didn’t, the Connecticut Supreme Court may be forced to weigh in on the issue before the next legislative session.
The state’s highest court has decided to hear a case in which Ackeem Riley, seven months shy of his 18th birthday, was sentenced to 100 years for his involvement in a revenge-motivated drive-by shooting in 2006, where one person died and two bystanders were injured.
Earlier this year, the state’s Appellate Court upheld Riley’s sentence in a split decision when it affirmed the trial courts judgment in the case at the same time as agreeing with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that judges must have flexibility in juvenile cases.
“Because the court exercised discretion in fashioning the defendant’s sentence, and was free to consider any mitigating evidence the defendant was able to marshal, including evidence pertaining to his age and maturity, we affirm the judgment of the trial court,” the decision reads.
It goes onto say: “The state asked the court to impose an effective sentence of 120 years imprisonment because, in its view the defendant ‘should never ever be on the streets again’.”
It concluded that “our sentencing statute permit the court a great deal of discretion in determining an appropriate sentence.”
That decision is being appealed to the state Supreme Court. Briefs in the case are due this summer and arguments could be heard in the fall or winter.
If the legislature doesn’t act before Riley’s case is decided it could be the Supreme Court that sets out how these cases are handled in the future, Shortall said.