Legislation looks at early release for juveniles serving long sentences

John Cluny plans to go to Hartford Monday, if the weather allows, to speak out against a proposed law that would give the teenager who killed his wife and son at their Norwich home in 1993 a chance at early release from prison.

The 70-year-old Cluny thought Michael Bernier, who shot Cluny's wife, Elaine, and his 14-year-old son David in the head, would be in prison for 60 years, or at least for the rest of Cluny's life. Now he's not so sure.

During Monday's public hearing, Cluny said he would tell the Judiciary Committee to reject a proposed bill that would enable Bernier, who is now 35, an early parole hearing because Bernier committed his crimes at 15, an age when experts say juveniles are prone to impulsive behavior and less able to understand the full impact of their actions.

"Do you think this kid's going to get out and have a job and go to the beach and have a girlfriend while my son sits in a casket rotting? Think again," Cluny said during a phone interview Friday. "They claim there are juveniles that should have a second look, but I don't believe (Bernier) is one of them. He's just plain evil."

The Connecticut Sentencing Commission has recommended the bill, which would enable juveniles serving lengthy sentences to have a parole hearing after serving 60 percent of their sentence or 12 years, whichever is longer. The bill would also eliminate mandatory life-without-parole for individuals under 18 and require judges to consider youth-related factors when sentencing juveniles transferred to adult court. Adults convicted of murder and capital offenses are not eligible for parole in Connecticut, while those convicted of other violent crimes are eligible for parole after serving 85 percent of their sentences.

The Sentencing Commission, comprising judges, attorneys, police, parole and correction officials, crafted the legislations in reaction to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions about juveniles serving lengthy prison sentences. In Miller v. Alabama, the court held that even in a homicide case, children under 18 could not receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole. In the Graham v. Florida decision, the court ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence juvenile offenders to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime.

In an earlier incarnation, the Connecticut bill would have enabled juveniles to have a parole hearing after serving 50 percent of their sentence or 10 years. The House last year modified the bill to include the 60 percent/12-year minimums. An estimated 250 prisoners who were sentenced as juveniles would be eligible for an early parole hearing under the so-called "second-look" legislation, according to Jason Depatie, program administrator for the Sentencing Commission.

"The consensus of the Sentencing Commission is that the best approach to compliance with the Supreme Court decisions is through this balanced legislation that considers all the implications of those decisions, rather than through years of litigation in the courts," said retired Supreme Court Justice David M. Borden, chairman of the Sentencing Commission, in a prepared statement.

Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane said in the same statement that the proposal enables the Board of Pardons and Paroles to decide whether defendants are suitable for release under a stricter standard of suitability than presently exists.

"It also provides that anyone found suitable for release would be released on parole subject to supervision and re-incarceration, something that is not possible under the present law," Kane said.

k.florin@theday.com

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