Politics played a role in the late-night demise of legislation to reconsider the prison sentences of juvenile offenders, Senate leaders acknowledged Thursday.
The bill, which sought to bring Connecticut in line with U.S. Supreme Court rulings on punishments meted out to juvenile offenders, died on the state Senate calendar at the end of the legislative session Wednesday for the second year in a row.
The legislation would have given inmates serving lengthy prison terms for crimes they committed as teenagers an opportunity to make a case for a shorter sentence to a parole board.
Although it was approved with bipartisan support in the House, Senate Republicans attached more than 20 amendments to the bill that would have forced Senate Democrats to take up or down votes on sensitive issues like legalizing the death penalty for terrorists or people who murder children on school property.
During a post-session press conference Thursday, Senate President Donald Williams and Majority Leader Martin Looney said they did not want to see members of their caucus forced into controversial and already-settled debates over things like the death penalty.
“It would have basically required us to, in effect, reargue every significant criminal justice change that’s been made within the last decade,” Looney said.
Williams said that time management is always a concern for legislative leaders in the last days of session. Bills that are sure to generate long debates are often eschewed in favor of passing many uncontested bills.
But Williams said his caucus also sought to avoid voting on the series of controversial issues Republicans had lined up.
“It was both,” he said. “. . . There were amendments regarding the death penalty, there were amendments regarding the so-called ‘three strikes you’re out legislation,’ amendments regarding the earned credits program, and all of these issues have been litigated numerous times in the past.”
Williams said the Supreme Court has made it clear that prosecutors can no longer seek to impose life-without-parole sentences on juvenile offenders, which he said was his “most significant concern” on the issue.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said his caucus understood the necessity of addressing the issue in light of the court ruling, but felt the bill crafted by the state’s nonpartisan Sentencing Commission went further than it had to in order to comply.
McKinney said he warned proponents well in advance of the final week of the legislative session that his caucus would talk the bill for a long time. He said he gave them enough time to run the legislation if they wanted to.
“Were they to wait till Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday . . . the bill would be in trouble. But if they brought it up on Friday or Saturday, it would be very difficult for 14 people to talk for five days straight. So it was their choice not to bring it up,” he said. “. . . They didn’t want to bring it up because they didn’t want to have up or down votes on our amendments.”
McKinney said Senate Republicans discussed compromise proposals with the Sentencing Commission, which they would have allowed to pass without controversial amendments, but the commission declined to abandon its own bill.
During his own press briefing, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Thursday he wished the legislature had taken some action on the issue. He did not specifically endorse the bill drafted by the Sentencing Commission.
Without legislative action, Malloy said he believed courts may be forced to make new rules on the issue based on a number of cases pending in Connecticut.
“It’s clear that someone has to take action in the state of Connecticut. The likely source of that action could and should be the legislature, but in the absence thereof, I’m simply saying don’t be surprised if somebody else acts,” he said.
McKinney said he was willing to take a wait-and-see approach on the courts rather than adopt legislation based on where the state Sentencing Commission believes the Supreme Court is heading.
“They were making assumptions of where the Supreme Court might be years down the road, and we were willing to wait for that to happen rather than to get there now,” he said.