State Considers Changes In Juvenile Sentencing Laws

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Public Defender Christine Perra Rapillo

The trend really began in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that it's unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on anyone who committed their capital crime when they were under the age of 18.

Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida ruled that minors, because of their emotional immaturity, are less culpable than adults and more capable of rehabilitation. The result was that the justices struck down as unconstitutional life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted in non-homicide crimes.

So it came as little surprise last year the nation's highest court went one step further in Miller v. Alabama and held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole violate the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment, and are unconstitutional for all juvenile offenders, even those involved in homicides.

As a result, it seems that every juvenile in Connecticut who received a severe prison sentence wants to get back before a judge. The U.S. Supreme Court decision impacted close to 200 inmates in Connecticut who committed their crimes before they reached age 18.

In many states, the legislature or court system has stepped in to amend juvenile sentencing guidelines in the wake of the Miller decision. But that hasn't happened in Connecticut yet, though the state Sentencing Commission is debating the matter and courts are preparing to hear cases whose decisions could provide more widespread guidance.

"The day after the [Miller] ruling I started getting phone calls from people who were incarcerated and wondered what it meant for them," said Christine Rapillo, director of Delinquency Defense and Child Protection for the state Office of the Chief Public Defender. "Other states are wrestling with the same thing and there hasn't really been any consistent rulings across the country."

Rapillo said in Connecticut there are five or six juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole sentences. To get such a sentence in Connecticut, the juveniles had to have been charged with a capital felony.

Rapillo said there is a slew of other juveniles who were sentenced from 80 to as much as 100 years behind bars. "Which is effectively life," Rapillo said. They, too, will seek to have judges reconsider their sentences.

"That's kind of the next level of Miller cases. You could challenge that sentence based on the court didn't consider all of the Miller factors when they gave the person that severe sentence however many years ago it was," said Rapillo.

Miller factors require a judge to consider the defendant's youth and development and the nature of the crime before sentencing the juvenile to imprisonment with no hope for parole. The Miller ruling does not automatically free any prisoner, and it doesn't forbid life terms for young murderers

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