The state’s Sentencing Commission is seeking a clarification of a law that was passed in 2021 allowing more people serving prison time to apply for a sentence modification if they can prove they have transformed their life.
The law signed by Gov. Ned Lamont in July allows people who were sentenced to prison after a trial or if they were incarcerated for seven years or less as part of a plea agreement to apply to have their sentence modification heard by a judge without the approval of a state’s attorney.
Under the previous sentence modification law passed in the early 1980s, only those who were serving less than three years prison time could seek a sentence modification without the approval of a state’s attorney.
The Sentencing Commission says the problem with the 2021 law is it doesn’t specifically say it applies to people who are already serving prison time.
“We always meant for that bill to be retroactive,” Alex Tsarkov, the executive director of the Sentencing Commission, said. “It was very clear during all of our internal meetings.”
But attorneys for the Judicial Branch have determined that as written, the change would only apply to those who were convicted and sentenced after the law went into effect this year.
The commission voted to recommend the legislature change it to say that anyone who was convicted prior to, on or after Oct. 1, 2021 could apply for a sentence modification.
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 can be presented. Victims and prosecutors can also speak in favor or against the early release.
Sentence modifications, according to officials, are rare, especially since prior to the change in the law people who are incarcerated for more than three years couldn’t apply to receive a hearing without the approval of the state’s attorney who prosecuted their case.
There is no way of telling how many people were turned down in past years, since the courts and prosecutors weren’t required to keep track of those who were not allowed to apply, Tsarkov said.
The new law doesn’t automatically give everyone who applies a sentence modification, Chief Public Defender Christine Rapillo said.
“It’s not entitling anyone to get a sentence modification,” Rapillo said. “All it’s doing is getting more people in front of judges.”
But the state Office of the Victim Advocate is against making the law retroactive because victims could not consider its ramifications when agreeing to plea deals in older cases, state Victim Advocate Natasha Pierre, said.
“It’s not fair to those victims who didn’t have the ability to have a say,” said Pierre who is in favor of keeping the law prospective.
In order to amend the 2021 law, legislators would still need to weigh in and it would have to be signed by the governor.