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Advocates Hope to Revive Juvenile Sentencing Bill

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File photo of a gate outside of a prison. (Photo by FRANK PERRY/AFP/GettyImages)

File photo of a gate outside of a prison. (Photo by FRANK PERRY/AFP/GettyImages)

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By SUSAN HAIGH
Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Advocates of a failed bill that would have revamped Connecticut’s juvenile sentencing rules following two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings are hoping lawmakers will resurrect it before the 2015 General Assembly session.

If not, they predict judges will begin issuing decisions on 60 pending appeals, potentially creating different rulings for similar cases and prompting possibly years of additional costly litigation. Other inmates with lengthy sentences imposed when they were under 18 are expected to follow suit.

“After two years now of the Legislature not acting, those cases are going to be moving forward,” said Quinnipiac University law professor Sarah R. Russell, who has studied the juvenile sentencing issue in Connecticut. “And I would imagine people that are serving sentences and have held off in hopes of a legislative solution will now file.”

Andrew Clark, acting executive director of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, which crafted legislation after the rulings, said he hopes lawmakers will take it up again in a special session. The bill passed the House in early April but died in the Senate on Wednesday, the last night of the session, for the second year in a row.

Republican senators offered amendments to the bill, threatening a lengthy debate on many contentious criminal justice matters.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said he doesn’t foresee holding a special session unless there is an agreement to call up the bill free of amendments, as it appeared in the House. He said the issue will likely be revisited when the new session begins in January.

The two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court essentially prohibited mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles and required states to provide those inmates with a “meaningful opportunity” for release. In Connecticut, 14- to 17-year-olds charged with certain serious crimes can face adult prison terms, including mandatory life-without-parole sentences.

In response to the court decisions, the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, a 23-member group of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, a victim advocate, the parole board chair, law enforcement officials, the state’s correction and mental health commissioners and various citizens, crafted a bill that provides juvenile offenders with a chance for a parole board hearing after serving 60 percent of the sentence or 12 years, whichever is longer.

The bill also eliminated mandatory life-without-parole sentences for individuals under 18 and required judges to consider youth-related factors, such as maturity level, in sentencing juveniles in adult court.

The bill would have applied to approximately 250 Connecticut inmates serving sentences of 12 years or more for crimes committed when they were under 18. About 50 are serving sentences of 50 or more years and most are not eligible for parole.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, a GOP gubernatorial candidate who proposed the amendments, contends the legislation went too far and beyond addressing the Supreme Court rulings. He said Senate Republicans had suggested a compromise that would have allowed a juvenile’s case to be reviewed but not as soon as proposed in the bill.

“They refused to pick anything less than what the bill was, despite the fact that they knew the bill was going to die,” McKinney said.

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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