The state Supreme Court has ordered a new sentencing hearing for a man sentenced to life in prison for a murder he committed as a minor. But the court left up to the legislature to decide whether similarly situated offenders should be granted parole hearings.
In a decision published Friday, the court ordered another sentencing hearing for Ackeem Riley, who was convicted of a revenge-motivated drive-by shooting in 2006. At the time of the murder, Riley was seven months shy of his 18th birthday. Two of the justices dissented.
In his appeal to the state Supreme Court, Riley’s lawyers cited two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have changed how courts look at sentences imposed on young offenders. The majority of Connecticut justices applied one of those decisions, called Miller, to Riley’s case. That will result in a new sentencing hearing, in which Riley’s age at the time of the murder will be considered as a mitigating factor.
But the justices declined to apply the second decision, called Graham, to Riley’s case. Graham has helped motivate a proposal that has failed to pass the legislature for several years. That proposal will be the subject of a public hearing Wednesday in the Judiciary Committee.
The bill requires that offenders sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as a minor be eventually given a chance for release if they can prove they have matured and have been rehabilitated.
In a majority opinion written by Justice Andrew McDonald, the court said the issues raised by Graham must be settled by the legislature.
“Therefore, in deference to the legislature’s authority over such matters and in light of the uncertainty of the defendant’s [new sentencing hearing], we conclude that it is premature to determine whether it would violate the Eighth Amendment to preclude any possibility of release when a juvenile offender receives a life sentence,” McDonald wrote.
However, despite recommendations and lobbying by the nonpartisan Sentencing Commission, the legislature has so far declined to address the issue.
During the past two legislative sessions, the commission has pushed a bill to 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 bill twice has died on the Senate calendar.
The Judiciary Committee has raised the bill again this year. It will hold a hearing for public comment on the proposal Wednesday.
Last year, the bill easily passed the House but stalled in the Senate, where Republicans felt it went far beyond updating state law to comport with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Republicans said the bill’s supporters were unwilling to negotiate on the proposal. They responded by filing a series of amendments that would have forced debates and votes on several controversial criminal justice policies. Democratic leaders in the Senate shelved the bill rather than engage in those debates.
Lawmakers are unlikely to avoid a debate on criminal justice policy this year. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed series of proposals that he has named the “second chance society” initiative.
Although Malloy’s proposals do not address juvenile offenders serving long sentences, the governor has proposed to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences that accompany some nonviolent drug possession crimes and make those crimes misdemeanors rather than felonies. His proposals also would speed up parole hearings for low-risk inmates and ease the process by which ex-offenders earn a full pardon.