Faced with two consecutive legislative defeats on juvenile sentencing reforms, the nonpartisan Sentencing Commission wrestled Thursday with the “existential” question of just how strong a lobbying role it should take in the political arena.
The commission met Thursday for the first time since the end of the legislative session, when lawmakers again declined to act on legislation to reconsider lengthy prison sentences given to juvenile offenders.
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 for the second year in a row. 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.
Politics factored heavily into the bill’s failure this year. The legislation easily passed the House but leaders in the Democratic-controlled Senate acknowledged they declined to raise the proposal in an effort to spare their members from having to vote on controversial amendments planned by Republicans.
The group plans to recommend the policy again next year.
But during Thursday’s meeting, former state Rep. Bill Dyson suggested the commission take a more active role in advocating its recommendations in the legislature and pushing back against the claims of lawmakers who oppose those recommendations.
“If they think you’ll draw blood, they will find a way to talk to you in order to prevent the blood from being spilled,” he said. “If they think you will follow the process, they’ll beat you every time. But if they think you’ll go around the process, now you’ll get their attention.”
Dyson’s comments set off a lengthy debate over whether and how the nonpartisan group of judicial experts should lobby the legislature. For the past two years, the panel’s chairman, retired state Supreme Court Justice David M. Borden, has been on hand near the end of the legislative session to advocate for the juvenile sentencing bill.
Although the bill’s proponents in the Senate asked for Borden’s help, the practice has not gone unnoticed by opponents of the bill. Senate Minority Leader John McKinney told reporters he had been in contact with members of the commission about the proposal.
“I had discussions with people on the Sentencing Commission, who I think for the third year in a row turned into quasi-lobbyists in the last week, two weeks of the session,” he said just after the session ended.
On Thursday, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said that perception of lobbying may be hurting the Sentencing Commission’s efforts rather than helping them.
“We’ve become a very strongly motivated group, trying to push it through the legislature. That may have caused the legislature’s perception to have changed . . . to such a degree that they became resistant. We were almost like another special interest group,” he said.
McKinney, who opposed the legislation this year because he felt it was more favorable to juvenile offenders than the Supreme Court cases require, said he approached members of the Sentencing Commission with compromise proposals, which could have resulted in the bill passing this year.
Borden said Thursday he declined to negotiate with lawmakers because he felt it would have betrayed the principles of the nonpartisan group.
“We would then clearly be just another political interest group, willing to trade one thing for another for our own interest. I simply said ‘No.’ Not only no to that proposal but no to that process,’” he said.
Dyson commended Borden for not accepting the compromise proposal and said legislators could “shove it up [their] nose.”
The Sentencing Commission agreed to continue discussing how it should approach its role before the next legislative session arrives in January. John Santa, a member of the commission appointed by the senate minority leader, said it was a discussion worth having.
“We’ve got an opportunity this fall to really debate this existential thing. What are we doing here? What is expected of us? How are we dispatching our duties? Within the proper confines or are we over-reaching our bounds?” he said.