Supreme Court Ruling on Juveniles May Have Limited Effect in Connecticut

Jun 25, 2012

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

The U.S. Supreme Court says it's unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole for murder. The ruling will have limited effect in Connecticut. Connecticut has something called capital offenses -- things like murdering a police officer or a young person.  And the penalty for capital offenses is mandatory -- either death or life in prison without parole.  But because the Supreme Court already outlawed the death penalty for juveniles, those young people who are convicted of capital felonies can only be sentenced to life without parole. Until, it seems, now.

 Christine Rapillo is with the state's public defender's office. "A person who committed the crime or changed with the crime when they under 18 could get life without parole. And now, under this case, they wouldn't be able to because that would be a mandatory sentence." That said, Rapillo says the charge itself is relatively rare. Kevin Kane, the state's top prosecutors, says she's right. "Because of their age, and the factors involved, we have been inclined not to charge them with capital felony in order to give the sentencing court some discretion in deciding how much of a sentence to impose."  But Rapillo also points to some of ruling's language that "a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles."  She says the ruling could be the basis for new appeals about all mandatory sentences for juveniles -- not just the ones involving capital offenses. "I don't know whether we'd win an appeal on that.  But I definitely think this case opens up the door." On this point, Kane disagrees. "Obviously, there's a trend here -- that the U-S Supreme Court is now saying, as a matter of constitutional law, that the courts need to give consideration to the youth and maturity of children.  I don't see them going so far as to eliminate all mandatory sentences for juveniles." The court's ruling was a 5 to 4 split.  For WNPR, I'm Jeff Cohen. This story is part of a reporting project with the John Jay Fellowship on Youth and Justice.