HARTFORD, Conn. — More than two dozen Connecticut inmates who were convicted of serious crimes as juveniles have had the opportunity to plead their cases for parole for the first time over the past year.
A 2015 Connecticut law required the Board of Pardons and Paroles to develop a new system of parole eligibility for people who committed crimes while under age 18, were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, and were incarcerated on or after Oct. 1, 2015. The law also retroactively eliminated life sentences for other offenders who committed serious crimes as juveniles.
The law was passed to bring Connecticut in line with U.S. Supreme Court decisions concerning juvenile sentencing. However, Connecticut’s law is more expansive than some states’ responses to the federal rulings, applying not just to sentences of mandatory life without parole.
Statistics from the Board of Pardons and Paroles show the agency held 22 hearings in 2016 and 13 in 2017, as of May. Of those 35 offenders, 17 were paroled and 18 were denied. The board identified a total of 210 former juveniles who qualified for these “juvenile reconsideration hearings.”
Of the 66 offenders who were sentenced to 50 years or more as juveniles, the Department of Correction said all are still incarcerated except for one, who died July 4.
“It’s a work in progress,” parole manager Jessica Bullard said of the new system. “We’re working on it, and everyone is doing their part and learning their roles.”
The Associated Press spent months reviewing how other states and counties have addressed juvenile life without parole. The AP found the response has been inconsistent and in some cases elusive.
HOW IT WORKS IN THE STATE
The juvenile reconsideration hearings are unlike the board’s regular parole hearings. The 2015 law laid out a framework: The inmate and his or her victim must be allowed to make statements. The inmate’s counsel and the state’s attorney must be allowed to submit reports and documents. Also, the board is required to use risk assessment tools to determine whether the defendant might break the law again. Members may request testimony from mental health professionals and relevant witnesses, and review the inmate’s prison record.
Board members also must consider a variety of things before determining whether to release a former teen offender on parole, such as the seriousness of the crime and whether the ultimate sentence is in line with the harm caused. The General Assembly also required them to consider whether the offender has shown remorse and grown in maturity since the crime, and the circumstances the offender faced at the time, such as a lack of education.
Proponents of the law say such considerations are necessary given a growing body of research that shows the brains of adolescents are still developing, making them more susceptible than adults to peer pressure and likelier to commit reckless acts without considering the long-term impact. However, the law doesn’t guarantee that an inmate will be released.
Once all eligible inmates are heard, the juvenile reconsideration hearings can cease. Bullard said the Board of Pardons and Paroles is on track to finish up the hearings in 2037 or shortly thereafter.
Under the new law, minors sentenced to more than 10 years or to 50 years or less in prison are eligible for parole after serving 12 years or 60 percent of the sentence, whichever is greater. Minors sentenced to more than 50 years are parole-eligible after serving 30 years.
Nearly all of the affected inmates will be eligible for reconsideration hearings by 2019.
Nicholas Aponte is eligible for a reconsideration hearing next year, on May 30. Aponte was 17 when he participated in a 1995 deadly sandwich-store robbery in North Haven with three other teens. He had asked to shorten his 38-year sentence, making him eligible for an earlier hearing, but the board denied that request.
The family of the 28-year-old victim, David Horan, opposed the request, arguing that Aponte should have known better at his age. Aponte has received public attention for his efforts to rehabilitate himself in prison, earning an associate degree and becoming a hospice volunteer.
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