A state commission discussed legislation today that could give juvenile offenders an earlier opportunity for parole. The proposal would also eliminate life sentences without parole for inmates convicted of a crime committed when they were under the age of 18.
Proponents say the change is needed to comply with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that says sentencing a juvenile to life without parole is unconstitutional. It was brought up during the last legislative session, but never became law.
Roberto Vergara was 16 when he got 33 years for robbery and unlawful restraint. He was paroled in 2008, after serving 17 years. He testified before the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, saying that jail changed him for the better. "I discovered books," Vergara said. "I started reading. I started educating myself."
He eventually got his GED, but Vergara stressed that a parole hearing must be earned. "I believe not everybody should get that chance, but I also know there are a lot of people in there who deserve that chance," he said.
John Cluny said some youth offenders don't deserve parole. In 1993, a 15-year-old murdered his wife and son in Cluny's home. He testified before the board with a picture of his wife and son placed before him. "Now you want to put this kid on the street so he can have a life?" Cluny asked. "So he's going to come out and have a life and get a job while my son rots in the grave. Do you call that justice?"
Thomas Ullmann is a public defender in New Haven. He responded to Cluny, and said the proposal mandates that parole eligibility for juveniles be considered on a case-by-case basis. "I just want to assure you that this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card," he said.
If passed, the bill would apply retroactively regardless of when inmates were sentenced. According to the state, it saves approximately $30,000 per year to supervise an inmate under parole versus keeping them in jail.