HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The state's top public defender predicted Thursday her office may get an influx of requests for appeals from certain inmates because the General Assembly failed to pass a bill changing juvenile sentencing laws to conform to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
"I think we have an estimate of about 197 possible cases that, without some structure and legislative action, could be asking for some kind of relief in these cases," chief public defender Susan Storey told fellow members of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission .
She said the majority will need public defenders and possibly expert witnesses.
Commission members expressed disappointment Thursday the state Senate did not vote on a bill allowing parole hearings for people convicted of serious crimes when they were 14 to 17 years old, so long as they served at least 12 years in prison or 60 percent of their sentences, whichever is greater. It set a maximum of 30 years.
The bill, recommended by the commission, was supposed to address a 2012 Supreme Court decision that determined mandatory life sentences for juveniles without the chance for parole violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which addresses cruel and unusual punishment. In that ruling, the court said judges must examine all circumstances of a case when sentencing juveniles in adult court, including the age of the offender.
The bill easily passed the House of Representatives on a 137-4 vote.
"This opens the door to people going directly to court and getting outcomes that are, at this point, completely unpredictable," said commission member Michael Lawlor, who's Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning. "Depending on which judge you get, it could be any outcome. Somebody could walk out of prison the next day or they could not get out at all. Who knows how that would play out over time and potentially, given the appeals that might flow from that, waste a lot of resources in the process."
Public defender Thomas Ullmann, another commission member, said he had been receiving phone calls for almost a year from affected inmates interested in filing habeas corpus petitions in light of the 2012 decision, known as Miller v. Alabama, as well as a 2010 decision, known as Graham vs. Florida, which determined that juvenile sentences of life without parole for non-homicide cases was unconstitutional.
"I've tried to hold them off, saying that I felt that there was a lot of work being done on this," he said, adding how "that's the most disappointing part" of the bill not passing because he's concerned people will fill petitions without a set process in place.
"Now you're going to find people filing habeas corpus petitions, challenging their status based on Graham and Miller and the cost is going to be incredible," he said, adding how defense lawyers and prosecutors will be assigned, transcripts will be ordered and defense attorneys will be ordering psychiatric examinations. "It's kind of a shame."
Ullmann sat on a study group that spent a year-and-a-half coming up with the carefully crafted legislation.
"I really think it put the criminal justice system in the position that litigation would be very difficult," he said, adding how inmates wouldn't be able to argue there was not a "meaningful review" of their case, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who had planned on a lengthy debate over the bill in the Senate if it came up for vote, said he believed the legislation was written "extremely broad and went far further than we have to go as a state."
Advocates plan to revisit the issue next session or possibly sooner, in case a special legislative session is scheduled.
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