Hugh McQuaid Photo
Justice David Borden (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

The nonpartisan state Sentencing Commission asked Thursday that legislators next year reconsider a set of criminal justice reforms lawmakers failed to pass in 2013. The group’s recommendations include rethinking policies on juvenile sentencing and drug arrests.

The criminal justice policy commission during a Thursday meeting approved its 2014 recommendations with three proposals that didn’t make it to the legislative finish line in 2013.

Reconsidering Juvenile Sentences

Of the three policy recommendations, members of the commission seemed most dismayed with the legislature’s failure to adopt a policy to take another look at punishments given to people convicted of serious crimes when they were under the age of 18.

The concern stems from a growing body of caselaw from U.S. Supreme Court upholding the position that juvenile criminals are less culpable and therefore less deserving of severe punishment than are their adult counterparts.

Lawmakers rejected a proposal this year to give offenders serving long sentences for crimes they committed as minors a chance at a hearing before the parole board. After the legislative session, one member of the Sentencing Commission predicted that decision would lead to an “onslaught of litigation” from Connecticut inmates using the Supreme Court decisions to bring their cases back to court for re-examination.

The proposal the group is asking lawmakers to consider next year will differ from past bills in that it will limit to one the number of times an inmate may petition the parole board. It will also include notification requirements for the victims who were affected by that offender’s crime.

Those changes were made at the request of state Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose, who felt the original proposal was weighted too much in favor of defendants and not in the best interest of their victims. Ambrose said he understood the proposal needed to move forward as a result of the Supreme Court decisions. He said the changes he negotiated would lessen the impact on victims.

“I do believe my office cannot support this bill in its entirety. However, there is an agreement to live with this compromise and not work against it when it’s presented to the legislature,” he said.

David M. Borden, a retired state Supreme Court Justice who serves as one of the commission’s chairmen, said the policy change also is a matter of fairness for people who committed crimes before their brains had fully developed.

“This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. All this does is give a person the opportunity to persuade the parole board that he or she is entitled to be released,” he said.

During the 2013 legislative session, the bill passed the House overwhelmingly but died on the Senate calendar as the session came to a close. Borden said he expected it to be successful next year.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Drug-Free Zones

The Sentencing Commission also recommended lawmakers reconsider a proposal to shrink the size of “drug-free zones,” or areas around schools, daycares, or public housing complexes, in which penalties for drug crimes are significantly increased. The proposal would make the zones a 200-foot perimeter.

The concern with the current 1,500-foot drug free zones policy is that the zones often encompass entire urban neighborhoods or even most of a given municipality. As a result, anyone who’s convicted of a drug charge in those cities faces a stiffer penalty than they would in another town.

Borden used the city of New Haven as an example.

“The only place that it doesn’t apply is in the Yale golf course. So it doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “. . . It de-validates, so to speak, the deterrent effect if everywhere is the enhanced area.”

The change has come before the legislature many times in recent years but has so far been unsuccessful. Andrew Clark, acting executive director of the Sentencing Commission, said it’s a difficult concept for lawmakers from rural communities to explain to constituents. Clark said lawmakers also worry that supporting such a proposal may make them appear soft on crime.

Even with 2014 being an election year, Borden said he hoped the legislature would pass the policy.

“We’re going to put it forward and hope that wisdom prevails,” he said.

Rehabilitation of Felons

The commission also recommended a process by which convicted felons can apply for a “certificate of rehabilitation.” The goal of the concept is to help some prior offenders get jobs. It would allow the state Court Support Services Division to issue documents indicating they have been rehabilitated. The policy would prevent employers from discriminating against ex-offenders with the certificates based solely on their conviction.

“Right now employers have limited information on an individual. They have to create their own case and they’ll do a background check,” Clark said. “This would create a conduit from the state’s criminal justice agencies to be able to say . . . they’ve reached a standard by which we can offer them a certificate of employability.”