Barbara Fair is sick of traveling to Hartford year after year to testify on a bill that would give juvenile offenders an opportunity to reduce their sentences.
“There’s so much work that needs to be done on the laws we have on the books that I don’t want to have to come back and talk about the same old thing,” Fair, of New Haven, told the Judiciary Committee on Monday. “I’m hoping you have the courage to pass this bill and make an opportunity for these children who are now adults . . . and have turned their life around.”
The legislature came close to approving a similar bill last year, but it didn’t get called in the Senate when Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, promised to speak for a long time on the bill toward the end of the legislative session.
Kissel has expressed concern that the legislation is more focused on the offender than the victim.
However, advocates in favor of the legislation, including the Sentencing Commission, say is 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.
Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, said the bill stems not only from U.S. Supreme Court rulings, but a growing body of scientific evidence regarding juvenile brain development.
Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, told the committee that “science now has proof that a teenager’s brain is still developing until the age of 25; those who commit crimes as juveniles are very different from adults.”
She told the committee that children as young as 14 years old are serving long sentences for crimes, including the maximum of life without the possibility of parole. She said some of those children with lengthy sentences were not charged and tried for murder.
Leslie Aponte, whose son is serving a long sentence for being present during a murder that was committed when he was 17, said the system needs to look at the ones who have changed. She said even though he’s behind bars her son has been able to accomplish so much.
“He never let those prison walls consume him,” Aponte said.
She said he’s the smartest person she knows and is always looking to see how he can be a mature and become productive member of society. She said she just wants to see him get a chance at release.
But even the potential of release was untenable to John Cluny of Norwich.
“I’m making the assumption that the potential for release is there,” Cluny said. “And they shouldn’t even have the potential.”
In 1993, Cluny came home from work and discovered the bodies of his wife, Elaine, and 14-year-old son, David. They had been murdered by a neighborhood kid, Michael Bernier, who was 15 at the time. Bernier was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Over the years, Cluny has voiced opposition in Hartford to similar legislation and he too is sick of having to testify on the bill.
Meyer told Cluny that he thinks it’s wrong to put everybody in the same basket. He said based on the description Cluny gave of Bernier it sounded as if the parole board wouldn’t release him, but Cluny said “you can’t be sure of that.”
“That’s why I don’t want to see him even eligible,” Cluny said. “…Politics changes, people change, parole boards change, 15 years down the road 10 years down the road you don’t know who is going to be on the board.”
Sandra Staub, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said the Sentencing Commission has put a great deal of thought into the legislation.
She said the bill “balances the need for safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while accounting for brain science and constitutional law.”
In the meantime, there are several complicated juvenile sentencing cases currently in a holding pattern in anticipation of legislative action on the bill.
“It is important to keep in mind that litigation is expensive, time-consuming, and unpredictable and that it may yield unbalanced results,” Staub said.
State Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose testified in opposition to the legislation. He said it would give criminals infinite opportunities at release by forcing the Board of Pardons and Parole to reassess the criminals every time after a denial.
Ambrose also pointed out some drafting errors with the bill. He said the bill considers a lengthy sentence to be 10 years, but it provides that someone sentenced to an aggregate term of 20 years receive a mandatory hearing at the 12 year mark.
“There lies the inconsistency in the proposal; if we are to keep this concept, then the aggregate range should be amended to those serving 20-50, and those serving 50 or more . . . not those serving 10 years,” Ambrose said in an emailed statement.