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Bill to expand parole eligibility passes Senate after debate

A bill that would expand parole eligibility to individuals who were under the age of 21 at the time they committed a crime was debated extensively in the Senate on May 9 before passing.

Under current state law, offenders serving a sentence of more than 10 years for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18 are eligible for parole under certain circumstances. SB 952, as originally written, would have expanded parole eligibility to certain offenders who were under the age of 25 when they committed a crime. An amendment on the Senate floor, which passed by voice vote, lowered the age to 21.

Current parole eligibility rules for those under the age of 18 when they committed a crime can make them eligible for parole sooner than existing law, including for those who would be otherwise eligible for parole. Individuals who were incarcerated on or after October 1, 2015 and who were under the age of 18 when they committed a crime are eligible for parole if they were sentenced to 10 to 50 years and have served either 12 years or 60 percent of their sentence, whichever is greater, or if they have served more than 30 years of a sentence of 50 years or longer.

The current rules require a parole hearing for an incarcerated individual who becomes eligible for parole. The Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles (BOPP) also must notify the Chief Public Defender’s Office, the Department of Corrections’ Victim Services Unite, the Office of the Victim Advocate, the Judicial Branch’s Office of Victim Services, and the appropriate state’s attorney’s office of the hearing at least 12 months before it occurs.

At the hearing, the inmate must be allowed to make a statement, the inmate’s counsel and state’s attorney must be allowed to submit reports and documents, and victims of the person’s crimes must be allowed to make a statement. The board can also request testimony from mental health professionals, relevant witnesses, and Department of Corrections (DOC) reports.

After the hearing, the parole board can release the inmate on parole if they meet a variety of conditions, including if there is reason to believe the offender will not violate the law again, doing so could release criminal activity, and if it appears the offender is substantially rehabilitated.

The bill would not change any of the rules that are in place. It would extend eligibility of the rules to those who were aged 18 to 20 at the time they committed a crime.

Background on the bill cites decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Connecticut Supreme Court, which touch on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments and its application to sentencing juveniles to life without parole, as an impetus behind the 2015 law that led to the creation of parole eligibility rules for offenders under the age of 18 when they committed the crime. Those considerations factored into floor debate about the bill.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, chair of the Judiciary Committee, moved for passage of the bill and spoke to the legislation:

“This bill expands parole eligibility. We’ve had a conversation ongoing in this building about this very question and at what point should we take into account the conversation we’ve been having about the development of children and their brains and when they become adults.” Winfield said before introducing the amendment to change the age of eligibility for parole in the bill to 21.

Winfield then had a lengthy exchange through the Senate President with Sen. John Kissell, R-Enfield, about the reason the amendment lowered the age of eligibility for parole and the parole process in the bill. The exchange paused for a voice vote on the amendment, which passed.

“That whole issue, as far as brain development, clearly I think has been made. And I think we can take some comfort in the fact that even our United States Supreme Court has reviewed the information, the data on brain development and has concluded, at least so far as young people below 18 that as a matter of national policy, policy of the United States of America as articulated in at least two United States Supreme Court decisions that there has to be a review of the sentences of those under 18.” Kissell said in opposition to the bill following his exchange with Winfield.

Kissell argued that people are considered adults by the age of 25 and make choices, such as getting married and joining the military, which carry consequences that do not have the same possibility for review as the proposed expansion of parole eligibility.

“So, at some point, your rights should be parallel to and related to your responsibilities and if you disconnect them then it’s easy for individuals to run amok regarding their rights while not shouldering the mantel of responsibilities. So, that’s a huge question, the question as to where do we draw the line. And what this bill before us now does now is say we as a state are saying we’re going to go beyond the proscriptions of the United States Supreme Court and draw the line higher than 18.” Kissell continued.

Later in the debate over the bill, Sen. Heather Somers, R-Hartford, proposed an amendment that would have excluded individuals convicted of murder in the first degree, murder with special circumstance, arson and murder, kidnapping in the first degree, trafficking persons in the first degree, aggravated sexual assault in the first degree, and aggravated assault of a minor from consideration for parole if they were 21 or younger at the time the crime was committed.

“Although 21 may sound young, which it is, there are people that are responsible and clearly have the capacity to do great things, so I think that needs to be taken into consideration when we’re talking about this bill. And if you are someone who commits a vicious crime at 20 that calls for perhaps no parole, this bill will allow that sentence that’s by the judge or jury that deliberate for hours before they make their determination and take all the circumstances into consideration when they come forth with the sentence, that is in essence thrown out when and if this bill passes today.” Somers said before introducing the amendment.

Sen. Paul Cicarella, R-North Haven, also spoke in favor of the amendment.

“People commit these heinous crimes and it is terrible and I understand sometimes young adults make mistakes, they’re caught up with the wrong group, trying to impress someone, and after it’s done I’m sure they really feel bad. They feel like they shouldn’t have done it. But, at the end of the day, there was still a victim. And the message that I think we’re sending is they don’t matter, and I feel that we’re being easy on criminals and these aren’t criminals making simple mistakes.” Cicarella said.

Winfield rose to speak in opposition to the amendment.

“The public policy that we are trying to do with this bill doesn’t just say to our young people—because as I listened to the support for this amendment it was suggested that we’re sending messages to our young—it doesn’t say to our young people, commit a crime, you get out. It says to our young people after a certain period of time there is the possibility that you get a review that may or may not lead to your sentence being shortened, not necessarily getting out.” Winfield said.

A roll call vote on the amendment failed by a vote of 24 to 12. After subsequent debate on the full bill, as amended, the bill passed by a vote of 23 to 13. The House of Representatives has not yet been acted upon the bill.

The Board of Pardons and Paroles publishes monthly statistics on parole activities. For the first three months of 2023, the percentage of parole hearings granted has not risen above 60 percent. Between January and March of 2023, the board denied 111 parole applications and granted 123.

Source: CT Board of Pardons and Paroles

In the same period, the most common outcome of parole revocation hearings was the revocation of parole and the reparoling of individuals who were released to the community after having previously violated parole and served an appropriate amount of time in prison as a consequence of that violation.

Source: CT Board of Pardons and Paroles

According to the Prison and Policy Initiative, a non-profit that produces research on mass criminalization, between 2019 and 2020 Connecticut held 27 percent fewer parole hearings, the second highest rate among the 13 states with discretionary parole for which data was available. In 2019, Connecticut approved 50 percent of parole applications and approved 848 individuals for release on parole. In 2020, the state approved 61 percent of parole applications and approved 758 individuals for release on parole.

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Katherine Revello

An advocate for transparency and accountability, Katherine has over a decade of experience covering government. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine and her work has appeared in Reason, The Huffington Post, The Washington Examiner, and other publications.

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