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May 9, 2014

Connecticut debate spotlights how fights over death penalty can impede other needed reforms

Long time readers know that one of my enduring frustrations with debates over the fate of death penalty concerns how this debate can sometimes get in the way of other important criminal justice work.  A notable new example of this dynamic was on display this week in Connecticut, as evidenced by this local article headlined "Juvenile Sentencing Bill Fails Second Year In A Row." Here are the basic details:

A barrage of amendments, a planned Republican filibuster over the merits of reviving the death penalty, and recent charges against a Milford teen in the fatal stabbing of a classmate scuttled a criminal justice bill on the last day of the 2014 session.

The bill would have offered inmates serving long prison sentences for crimes they committed at a young age a chance at freedom.  The measure was crafted in response to two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, in 2010 and 2012.  The court held that life sentences for offenders younger than 18 are unconstitutional and that juvenile offenders must be given a "meaningful opportunity" to seek release.

The legislation cleared the House of Representatives on a broad and bipartisan vote in early April. But for the second year in a row, it failed to come up in the Senate by midnight Wednesday, when the General Assembly adjourned.  Republicans signaled to Democratic leaders that they were going to block the bill by filing 22 amendments, including one to reinstate the death penalty in Connecticut for convicted terrorists and another to eliminate a program that aims to rehabilitate prisoners by offering them credit toward early release....

Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams said there were enough votes to pass the measure. But, facing Republican opposition and wanting to avoid votes on controversial issues like the death penalty, Williams opted not to bring the bill up....

The proposed bill was based on recommendations by the non-partisan Connecticut Sentencing Commission. It would have permitted prisoners who committed crimes as teenagers and are serving prison terms of 20 years or less to be eligible for a sentence review after they had served 60 percent of their time.  Inmates serving 50 years or more could receive that "second look" 30 years into their sentences.  The proposal would not have guaranteed freedom for the inmates but would have given them the opportunity to argue their case at a special parole hearing with highly restrictive criteria.

"We're disappointed with what happened in the Senate," said David M. Borden, a retired state Supreme Court justice who chairs the Sentencing Commission, the panel charged with reviewing criminal justice policy and proposing legislation.  The commission's members include prosecutors, defense attorneys, police, corrections officials and the state victims advocate.  "When you look at the bill dispassionately and look at the facts dispassionately and clear away all the underbrush of things that don't have anything to do with it, it's a very good bill," Borden said Thursday.  "To the extent politics got in the way, well, we live in the real world ... we'll take the consequences."

The commission will meet in June and determine whether it will push for the measure again in 2015.  "I don't think there's going to be a strong sentiment for giving up this fight," Borden said.  He said 70 inmates in Connecticut already have filed cases seeking revisions in their sentences, based on the two Supreme Court rulings.  "This bill would have set down reasonable parameters for how these cases should be handled," Borden said.

In the absence of legislation setting a legal framework, the decision of how to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court rulings likely will be left to state courts, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Thursday. "Don't be surprised if it goes to court,"  Malloy said. The courts "will do what the [legislature] should have done and perhaps do more." 

May 9, 2014 at 12:42 PM | Permalink

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