Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill this week that will make it easier for anyone sentenced after a trial or to more than seven years to get time shaved off their sentence for transforming themselves behind bars.
“This is the biggest change to sentence modifications since the law went into effect in 1982,” Alex Tsarkov, executive director of the state’s Sentencing Commission, said.
The change in the law doesn’t get rid of sentences, but rather allows more people to have access to a hearing on whether their sentence should be modified, Tsarkov said. “It opens the door to more people who may be eligible,” he said.
Under the new law those who qualify for a hearing can seek one every five years if their first attempt at a sentence modification is turned down by a judge. During the hearings, evidence of the inmate’s transformation into a person who should be freed into society can be presented. Victims and prosecutors can also speak in favor or against the early release.
For the family of Gayle Isleib, a 54-year-old mother who was stalked and then shot seven times in the head by a co-worker in 1996, the change in the law represents the possibility of having to relive her murder every five years.
“For a long time it was difficult to remember my mother without immediately thinking of her brutal murder,” Isleib’s daughter Merit Lajoie told members of the Judiciary Committee during a March 10 public hearing on the proposed law. “Time has eased the pain but the loss will always be there. This proposal with ensure that Gayle’s family and friends never have peace of mind again.”
Several members of Islieb’s family also submitted testimony opposing the legislation including her daughter-in-law Beth Schultz. “My children never had the opportunity to meet their grandmother and I pray that the possibility of having to attend future hearings is not in our future,” Schultz said. “My husband was very traumatized by his mother’s murder and took his own life in April 2012. The heartbreak in our family is unimaginable and the passing of this would only open more wounds.”
It is unclear if the man convicted of Isleib’s murder has sought a sentence modification since the Judicial branch doesn’t keep track of the number of people who receive hearings or a sentence modification. They are rare, Tsarkov said. There is also no way of telling how many people tried to get the approval of a state’s attorney to apply for a hearing but were turned down, he said.
The change to the law was supported by the entire Sentencing Commission made up of stakeholders in the criminal justice process and the Connecticut Criminal Defense Trial Lawyers Association, according to testimony submitted during the public hearing on the bill.
The law also changes several other aspects of sentencing and criminal justice in the state including waiving some requirements for indigent defendants who cannot pay fees to get into a diversionary program and would reduce the penalty when a person fails to pay or respond to an infraction.
It also reduces the “drug free” school zones from 1,500 feet to 200 feet, which would reduce the disparate impact on people charged with drug offenses in urban areas.
Sentencing modifications are rare.
Clyde Meikle took every opportunity while incarcerated to better himself and his fellow inmates, his supporters said. As a result, Meikle was granted a sentence modification in January which allowed him to be released after serving nearly 27 years of a 50-year sentence for a murder conviction.
At the time Meikle had to first get the approval of the state’s attorney who prosecuted his case from 1994 to 1998 before he could receive a hearing on the sentence modification in front of a judge.
In Meikle’s case, he was doing a long sentence for the murder of his cousin who he shot from about a yard away in 1994. After he was sentenced in 1998, Meikle slowly began a transformation through journaling and education that led to him receiving a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Wesleyan University on May 26. Yale law students under the direction of an associate law professor compiled a 500-page presentation for the state’s attorney who prosecuted his case that included dozens of letters of support for a sentence modification and pages of the good works he engaged in while incarcerated.
Meikle was released on May 25 – his 50th birthday. He intends to get his doctorate so he can teach at the university level, he said.