The trend really began in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that it’s unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on anyone who committed their capital crime when they were under the age of 18.
Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida ruled that minors, because of their emotional immaturity, are less culpable than adults and more capable of rehabilitation. The result was that the justices struck down as unconstitutional life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted in non-homicide crimes.
So it came as little surprise last year the nation’s highest court went one step further in Miller v. Alabama and held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole violate the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment, and are unconstitutional for all juvenile offenders, even those involved in homicides.
As a result, it seems that every juvenile in Connecticut who received a severe prison sentence wants to get back before a judge. The U.S. Supreme Court decision impacted close to 200 inmates in Connecticut who committed their crimes before they reached age 18.
In many states, the legislature or court system has stepped in to amend juvenile sentencing guidelines in the wake of the Miller decision. But that hasn’t happened in Connecticut yet, though the state Sentencing Commission is debating the matter and courts are preparing to hear cases whose decisions could provide more widespread guidance.
“The day after the [Miller] ruling I started getting phone calls from people who were incarcerated and wondered what it meant for them,” said Christine Rapillo, director of Delinquency Defense and Child Protection for the state Office of the Chief Public Defender. “Other states are wrestling with the same thing and there hasn’t really been any consistent rulings across the country.”
Rapillo said in Connecticut there are five or six juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole sentences. To get such a sentence in Connecticut, the juveniles had to have been charged with a capital felony.
Rapillo said there is a slew of other juveniles who were sentenced from 80 to as much as 100 years behind bars. “Which is effectively life,” Rapillo said. They, too, will seek to have judges reconsider their sentences.
“That’s kind of the next level of Miller cases. You could challenge that sentence based on the court didn’t consider all of the Miller factors when they gave the person that severe sentence however many years ago it was,” said Rapillo.
Miller factors require a judge to consider the defendant’s youth and development and the nature of the crime before sentencing the juvenile to imprisonment with no hope for parole. The Miller ruling does not automatically free any prisoner, and it doesn’t forbid life terms for young murderers
Rapillo said numerous motions are being filed in courts across the state by juvenile defendants claiming that their sentences are unconstitutional under Miller. “Part of the issue is there’s no set procedure on how the cases are going to be handled,” said Rapillo.
So far, a handful of cases have been assigned to different judges and different court-appointed defense attorneys. Rapillo expects those cases to start getting hearing dates prior to the conclusion of the next legislative session, which begins in February. “There’s a lot more potential cases out there. I think we’re still in the process of identifying who is eligible under Miller,” Rapillo said.
Perhaps the most noteworthy case challenging the prison sentence of a Connecticut juvenile involves Ackeem Riley. In 2009, Riley was sentenced by Judge Thomas O’Keefe to 100 years in prison for a Hartford drive-by shooting that killed Tray Davis, 16, and injured two others in November 2006.
O’Keefe said Riley had a good upbringing and the opportunity to become whatever he wanted in life. “He chose to become a murderer,” the judge said at Riley’s sentencing. “Well, choices like that have consequences.”
Senior Assistant Public Defender Adele Patterson is challenging Riley’s sentence under Miller. The case will go before the state Supreme Court, though no hearing date has been scheduled. The prosecution’s brief is due in late January.
In light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Patterson says that Riley’s sentence of 100 years is “cruel and unusual punishment.”
“The case must be remanded to the trial court to conduct a new individualized sentencing proceeding where the mitigating characteristics of youth are given effect and considered in determining what punishment is proportional for the defendant and the offenses,” Patterson argues in court documents.
The Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance and the state Office of the Child Advocate have also sought permission to weigh in on the Riley case with an amicus brief. Abby Anderson, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Alliance, told the Law Tribune last year that it was “ethically, morally and fiscally wrong to lock children up and throw away the key.”
Anderson recently testified before the state’s Sentencing Commission, which has been tasked with reviewing the issue of juvenile sentencing and proposing legislation to lawmakers. Anderson argues that a person’s brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 25. She said allowing parole hearings enables the youthful offender to try to show they have matured and rehabilitated themselves. She isn’t asking for any guarantees that parole will be granted but she believes all juveniles deserve the opportunity.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Connecticut agrees.
“Because their brains are still developing, however, it is next to impossible to tell at the time of sentencing how adolescents will turn out,” ACLU legal director Sandra Staub told the Sentencing Commission, noting how costly it is to house prisoners for a lifetime. “Were they inherently bad and dangerous? Were they merely acting on impulse? Or were they persuaded by others into criminal behavior?”
New Haven Public Defender Thomas Ullmann, a member of the Sentencing Commission, explained that a measure introduced in the 2013 legislative session would have allowed parole hearings for people convicted of serious crimes when they were 14 to 17 years old, so long as they served at least 12 years in prison, or 60 percent of their sentences, whichever is greater.
The bill passed the House but did not get voted on by the Senate. Ullmann, however, is confident the measure will gain approval in 2014. He said the Sentencing Commission’s recommendation was to allow a parole hearing after 10 years, but House members boosted the time period to 12 years.
“Something has to be done,” Ullmann said. “This is a major proposal that the major players in the criminal justice system have reached a consensus on. [Passing legislation] would do away with a lot of these legal issues being raised now.”
State Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose, also a Sentencing Commission member, reportedly opposes the legislation, saying it doesn’t account for victims’ opinions. Ambrose did not return calls by press time last week.
Until the legislature takes action, Ullmann predicted, inmate challenges based on the Miller decision will continue to slowly trickle into the court system. He said many case are being handled pro se. He also noted that a lot must be done before those cases reach a court docket.
“A lot of them haven’t even proceeded yet,” Ullmann said. “They require research into backgrounds, getting psychiatric evaluations, those things take time and money. So there being worked on but those are not the kind of motions that get filed and all of a sudden heard immediately.” •