Bill would temper long sentences for young offenders

Hartford - Family members of convicted felons, judiciary officials and members of the public supported a bill that would give juvenile offenders a special parole hearing if they had lengthy sentences during a legislative public hearing on Monday.

The bill would also require judges to examine factors such as a youth's maturity when sentencing juveniles as adults for Class A, B or C felonies.

The few who vehemently opposed the bill were the State Victim Advocate and John Cluny of Norwich, whose wife and son were murdered in 1993.

"Nobody does anything for the victim, everybody feels sorry for the perpetrator and now you want to go easy on him so he can have a life," Cluny said to members of the Judiciary Committee. "You want to call that justice, I call that a disgrace."

The bill was debated before the Judiciary Committee for nearly five hours. A similar bill was passed in the House of Representatives last year but was not voted on by the Senate last year.

The General Assembly is creating legislation that gives juveniles a second chance even when they commit serious crimes such as murder because of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Graham v. Florida decided in 2010 that it was unconstitutional to sentence juvenile offenders to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime, and Miller v. Alabama decided in 2012 that in the case of homicide a juvenile could not be given a mandatory life sentence without parole.

The Connecticut Sentencing Commission, made up of judges, attorneys, police, parole and corrections officers, recommended the majority of the current legislation.

According to House Bill 5221, a juvenile offender who had been sentenced 50 years or less would be eligible for parole after serving 60 percent or his or her sentence or 12 years, whichever is greater. A juvenile offender who was sentenced to more than 50 years would be eligible for parole after 30 years.

The bill also states that a person who committed a crime when he or she was under age 18 and was sentenced to more than 10 years of prison may be eligible for parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court has defined a lengthy sentence as one that would require the young person to essentially die in prison, said Justice David Borden, who is the chairman of the state's sentencing commission. Currently a life sentence is 60 years.

State Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose said he opposed the bill and asked legislators why the state was defining lengthy as 10 years when the U.S. Supreme Court has defined it as sentences that would require the juvenile to likely spend most of his or her life in prison. Ambrose also said his office did not approve of the Board of Pardons and Paroles being able to bring a juvenile offender's case up for review as many times as it would like.

He said the Supreme Court decisions call for a one-time look at a juvenile offender.

This bill looks at an "infinite number" of looks as written, he added.

"The premise is that the more the person comes before you the more likely it is that this person is going to be released and that is the premise we are working on," Ambrose said.

Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane agreed that the bill went beyond the Supreme Court requirements and said his main concern was that the bill gave a lot of responsibility to the parole board to interpret the law. State Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, said that is what the parole board already does and that it is unfair for youths to have long sentences such as 35 years when the minimum sentence for an adult is 25 years.

"I know some crimes are worse than others, but when you are 17 years old and you commit a crime and you spend 35 years in jail, everybody deserves a second chance," Gonzales said.

Cluny disagreed.

His 15-year-old neighbor Michael Bernier broke into Cluny's home, unlocked Cluny's .357 Magnum and hid in his son's closet. Bernier shot his son in the back of the head when he got home from school, Cluny said. His wife came home from school a half an hour later, saw her son in a pile of blood and was shot behind her left ear.

Bernier was sentenced to 60 years in prison. With good behavior, Bernier could get out after 42 years, Cluny said. But with this new legislation he could be released after 36 years.

State Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said the new law wouldn't necessarily mean that the person involved in Cluny's case would be released.

"The highest court in the land has spoken on this and there is quite a bit of science behind it as well," Meyer said.

Cluny said he didn't even want the potential for release.

"He (Bernier) is a psychopath and he can slit your throat and eat lunch at the same time and it wouldn't bother him a bit," Cluny said.

Many of the people who spoke in favor of the bill spoke about experiences where their loved ones committed a horrible act in a quick, unplanned moment.

Elizabeth Beinfield of Rowayton said she has known Edward Turnage, who was sentenced to 32 years in prison at age 15, since he was 7 years old. He has served 17 years, she said.

"Eddie was and is a good person who as a child did a horribly bad thing," Beinfield said. "I was present for the arraignment. I can't imagine the despair that was caused by Eddie's act, but what I do know is that he feels intense and utter remorse."

She said she speaks with him two or three days a week still and that she can "see him being a mentor and counselor for troubled teens."

Daee Muhammad McKnight of Bridgeport, who is a re-entry coordinator for Family ReEntry, which helps people transition into society after prison, said he was "a product of the problem" and is now a part of the solution. His mother was incarcerated while she was pregnant with him and his grandfather was incarcerated. He said he grew up in the housing projects and became desensitized to violence. He was sentenced to 25 years for committing murder, assault in the first degree and attempted murder at age 19, he said. He served 17 and a half years before being released, he said.

"I was able to transform my life while inside," he said. "We are just looking for an opportunity for the guys that deserve it to move on with their lives."

Under the proposed law, at a hearing the parole board could hear from people including the offender, the offender's lawyer, the state's attorney, mental health professionals, witnesses, the victim and review reports or documents. The board could decide to let the offender, who committed a crime while under age 18, go on parole if there is a reasonable probability the person will live without violating the law, the benefits of releasing the offender outweigh the benefits of keeping the offender in prison and the person has demonstrated substantial rehabilitation, among other requirements. If the parole board decides that the offender must remain in prison, it must report the reasons why. The decision would not be subject to appeal, but the board would have to re-examine the offender's suitability for parole release at a later date.

About 250 prisoners would be eligible for a parole hearing under this legislation, according to Jason Depatie, program administrator for the sentencing commission.

j.somers@theday.com

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