Retired state Supreme Court Justice David M. Borden was stalking lawmakers outside the Senate chamber Monday night in a last-minute push to pass a judicial mechanism to reconsider the sentences of juvenile offenders.
Borden, who chairs the nonpartisan state Sentencing Commission, was hoping to create momentum for the bill his commission has backed for the past two years.The bill looked like it was headed for defeat. Opponents have attached 22 amendments to the bill, more than enough to talk it to death if it were raised on the floor with less than two days left in the legislative session.
“We’re trying to persuade as many people as we can because we think it’s a very good bill,” Borden said minutes before bringing it up with Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney.
The bill is the Sentencing Commission’s answer to a growing body of case law from the 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.
It would give inmates a hearing to make their case for a shorter sentence before a parole board if they have been serving lengthy prison terms for crimes they committed as teenagers.
The same proposal died last year under similar circumstances. It passed the House with bipartisan support only to expire on the Senate calendar late in the session when opponents signaled that they would force a lengthy debate. Borden notes that last year’s bill also suffered from the late-session absence of Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Eric Coleman, who was ill.
This year, Coleman is present and pushing for the bill, but he acknowledged Saturday it’s chances weren’t promising.
Opposition to the bill is frustrating for Borden, who points to its approval by the Sentencing Commission. The group has representation from all the moving parts of the state’s judicial system — prosecutors, public defenders, victim advocates, and judges.
“It’s the entire spectrum from right to left and everything in between,” he said.
However, the bill is opposed by some Republicans in the Senate. The Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican,Sen. John Kissel, said Monday that the bill goes far beyond what the state would need in order to comply with the Supreme Court ruling that motivated it.
“I think the Sentencing Commission folks would acknowledge that. They see a trend and they want to push that trend as far they can go,” he said.
Kissel said the bill was not fair to the families of crime victims who expect truth in sentencing. He pointed to the recent murder of a 16-year-old girl in Milford. The suspect in that case is also 16. Even if convicted of first-degree murder, Kissel said under the bill a 16-year-old could get a sentence reviewed and be released sometime in his 30s.
At the end of the day, Kissel said it’s up to Senate Democrats whether they want to call the bill and spend the time on the debate. He said Republicans were willing to limit the length of the debate, but were insistent on having up or down votes on the various criminal justice issues referenced in the 22 amendments. They cover sensitive issues like legalizing the death penalty for terrorists or people who murder children on school property.
Though it’s late in the session, Kissel said a long debate doesn’t necessarily kill a bill.
“They were willing to spend eight hours, maybe, on hydraulic fracturing. So you would think if the juvenile justice bill was as important to them they would commit eight hours to that as well,” he said.