In the next session of the Connecticut legislature, there must be a priority to pass legislation that will give a “second look” at lengthy juvenile prison sentences. In several recent cases the U.S. Supreme Court has held that juveniles sentenced to life without parole must be given some “meaningful opportunity” for release “based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” This is the so-called “second look.” In Graham v. Florida, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juveniles who commit non-homicide crimes from being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. To do so would be to conclude “at the outset that those offenders will never be fit to reenter society.” (130 S.Ct. 2011, 2010).

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court, in Miller v. Alabama, even rejected a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile convicted of murder. The Court held in essence that, because a juvenile’s mental development is not as well formed as that of an adult, the juvenile is more capable of change. The Court stated that a court must “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a life in prison.” (132 S.Ct. 2455, 2012). The juvenile should be entitled to a second look to see if he or she has reformed sufficiently to have the sentence reduced.

In Connecticut, juveniles who commit serious felonies may be sentenced as adults. For the commission of a capital felony (i.e. multiple murders or arson murder) they may be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. For murder, the minimum sentence is 25 years with no parole. And for any violent offense, offenders are ineligible for parole before serving 85 percent of their sentence.

The decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have prompted both courts and legislatures in several states to come up with differing responses. In Connecticut, the Sentencing Commission has taken the position that a legislative response is preferable to case-by-case decisions by different courts as to what the Supreme Court decisions require. The commission recommendations were developed by members with extensive and diverse criminal justice experience. The commission concluded that if a review of a lengthy sentence were to be done by a state court, there is no guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court as to when that review should be done or the criteria to be used. In addition, such a review would be resource-intense and put some judges in a position of having to second-guess a decision they made as the sentencing judge.

Parole is an appropriate, already existing system for determining early release. Measuring the effectiveness of rehabilitation is a judgment that the Parole Board is already trained to make. The concept of truth in sentencing is that everyone should know, at the time of sentencing, what the real time to be served could be. By establishing a statutory time for parole review, the public, the defendant, the victims and the attorneys would all know in advance when the offender would be first eligible for parole release.

In the last session of the legislature, the commission proposed legislation that became House Bill 6581. This bill provided that any juveniles sentenced to more than 10 years in prison (currently there are over 190 incarcerated with such sentences) would be eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence, or 10 years, whichever is greater. There would be an exception for sentences of more than 60 years, which would be eligible for parole after serving 30 years.

The House of Representatives amended HB 6581 so that it would apply only to sentences 12 years or more, and juvenile offenders would have to serve 60 percent of their time before being parole-eligible. Also, those serving sentences of more than 50 years, would be eligible after 30 years. The Parole Board would also be required to strictly apply criteria for release. The bill, with some additional modifications passed the House with a vote of 137 to 4. Unfortunately, time ran out before the Senate acted.

Critics of the proposed legislation point to the fact that some very serious offenders, such as multiple murderers, would be eligible for release. While this is true, the proposed bill only establishes the opportunity for a parole hearing, and parole boards traditionally give heavy weight to the seriousness of the offense and the effects on the victim and the community.

While every offender would be granted a hearing, it is unlikely that offenders who committed high-profile or multiple murders would be released on parole at the earliest release date. For example, Charles Manson, who is eligible for parole release, has had 12 parole hearings, and is still in jail, 44 years after his arrest. Sirhan Sirhan, the murderer of Bobby Kennedy, has had 13 parole hearings and is still incarcerated, 43 years after his arrest. Under the proposed bill if either of these offenders had been juveniles in Connecticut, they would not have had their first hearing until 30 years after conviction, and the Parole Board would establish a time for any additional hearings. It is unlikely that either one would have had more than two hearings.

The legislature must give a high priority to this “second look” bill in the upcoming session in February.