The state House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill Tuesday that would give prisoners serving lengthy sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles a chance at freedom.
The measure, which cleared the House by a vote of 137 to 4, now moves to the Senate for consideration.
“It’s a good first step,” said Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield. “Many times…youngsters engage in criminal conduct that obviously has changed the lives of others and themselves but at the time they committed the crime, they were not fully developed in terms of their minds and in terms of knowing possibly what’s right and wrong.”
The proposal also eliminates mandatory life-without-parole sentences for offenders under 18. It is part of a package of changes to the state’s criminal justice policies proposed by the Sentencing Commission, a 23-member panel made up of judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors, police and others. The sentencing recommendation comes in response to three recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, including Miller v. Alabama, which holds that life sentences for offenders under 18 are unconstitutional and requires states to provide young prisoners with “a meaningful opportunity” to seek release.
Rep. Gerald Fox, co-chairman of the judiciary committee, noted that the bill would not automatically free juvenile offenders.
“By no means is this an automatic release,” said Fox, D-Stamford. “But it is intended for us now to meet the constitutional requirement that is set out by the Supreme Court that we give those offenders who are convicted of serious crimes and do receive lengthy sentences an opportunity for that second look.”
Before passing the bill, the House amended it to make it tougher for those inmates to receive an early release. Those changes include requiring that an inmate have served at least 60 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible to leave prison.
Fox said there are inmates in the prison system who were under 18 when they committed a serious crime, and are now serving what amounts to a life sentence, which in Connecticut is defined as 60 years.
“Currently there are some individuals who are sentenced to life and at least one who is sentenced to 100 years,” Fox said. “There are many who have lengthy sentences ranging from 30 to 50 years.”
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, another member of the commission, called the bill “balanced legislation” and Judge Joseph Shortall, chair of the Sentencing Commission, applauded the legislature’s action.
”The Sentencing Commission believed that the best approach to compliance with the Supreme Court decisions was through legislation that considered all the implications of those decisions, rather than through years of litigation in the courts,” he said. “The bill passed by the House, if approved by the Senate, should put Connecticut in compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the Supreme Court decisions.”