State House passes bill to prohibit life without parole for juvenile offenders

Hartford — The state House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill that would allow a person sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for a crime committed as a minor a "second look" — a parole hearing.

The hearing is designed to give the person a chance for a shortened prison sentence.

The bill was written in response to two U.S. Supreme Court decisions found that it is unconstitutional to sentence young people to life without parole. The state House passed a similar bill last year, but the Senate did not.

A proponent of the bill, state Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, said the bill would meet the Supreme Court requirements, give victims the opportunity to be heard and establish criteria for judges to use when deciding how to sentence minors going forward.

Graham v. Florida, decided by the Supreme Court in 2010, declared it unconstitutional to sentence juvenile offenders to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime. Miller v. Alabama decided in 2012 that even in the case of a homicide, a juvenile could not be given a mandatory life sentence without parole.

The state bill would make a juvenile offender sentenced to 50 years or less eligible for parole after serving 60 percent of 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.

"By no means is this intended to automatically grant release," Fox said.

The parole board would have to take into consideration scientific evidence and would hear from mental health professionals, attorneys and victims, he said.

Going forward, a judge in sentencing minors would have to consider their lack of maturity, vulnerability to negative influences, increased capacity for change and reduced ability to understand the consequences of their actions.

During the public hearing for the bill last month, opponents said they were concerned about how many times an offender could apply for parole and whether the Office of the Victim Advocate would be informed at the same time other state agencies would be.

Both of the concerns were addressed in the current version of House Bill 5221. It passed 129-15.

Under the revised bill, the Office of the Victim Advocate would have to be informed of the parole hearing at least 12 months before the hearing, along with the Chief Public Defender's Office, the appropriate state's attorney, the Department of Correction's Victim Services Unit and the Judicial Branch's Office of Victim Services.

If parole is denied, the bill prohibits the parole board from reviewing the offender's case for two years.

The bill now goes to the Senate for a possible vote.

j.somers@theday.com

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