Conn. ramping up for juvenile 'lifer' parole hearings
New opportunity arises for young offenders after Supreme Court ruled life sentences without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional
By Susan Haigh
HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut's Board of Pardons and Paroles will soon hear from a new group of potential parolees — those convicted as juveniles.
The agency has been developing policy procedures and training its staff and board members on how to handle so-called "juvenile reconsideration hearings." These new hearings stem from state legislation last year that brought Connecticut in line with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The ruling determined that life sentences without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional and that states must give offenders "some meaningful opportunity" for release based on the defendant's demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.
"These hearings that we are now required to conduct are unlike any of our regular parole hearings," said Richard Sparaco, executive director of the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles.
At most parole hearings in Connecticut, only the victims and the offender are allowed to testify. Under Connecticut's new law, the board must allow the inmate to make a statement, the inmate's lawyer and the state's attorney to submit reports and documents, and any victim of the person's crime to make a statement.
The board may also request testimony from mental health professionals and relevant witnesses and reports from the Department of Correction and other agencies. Board members must also use risk- and needs-assessment tools in deciding things like whether a defendant might break the law again.
Connecticut's new law also requires the board to make a laundry list of determinations before deciding whether to release the person on parole. For example, they have to consider the seriousness of the crime and whether the ultimate sentence is in line with the harm caused; whether the offender has shown remorse and grown in maturity since committing the crime; and the circumstances the offender faced at the time of the crime, such as a lack of education and obstacles faced as a child.
The board has determined more than 200 people have qualified for these hearings. They include those who were sentenced as a juvenile without the chance for parole. Also, violent offenders who were eligible for parole after serving 85 percent of their sentence can now have their cases heard after they serve 60 percent. Sparaco said his office has identified 43 individuals whose cases should be ready to be heard this year.
The hearings could begin in May or June, he said.
"It's fluid right now," he said. "As soon as we're ready to move forward with one, we're going to start."
Last month, the board got a preview of what they might hear at upcoming juvenile reconsideration hearings. Nicholas Aponte, who was convicted at 17 and has served 20 years in prison for his role in a deadly robbery, appeared at a clemency hearing in Waterbury. The murder convict sought to shorten his sentence in order to make him eligible for parole sooner under the new law.
The family of the 28-year-old victim, David Horan, questioned whether Aponte has truly repented for his role in the killing and accused him of using the U.S. Supreme Court decision to avoid his culpability.
"Please stop hammering on this assertion that lethal, deliberate crimes committed by those younger than 18 are somehow different," said Horan's father, John, who insisted Aponte should have known his actions could have deadly consequences. The board ultimately denied Aponte's request. However, the offender will be eligible under the state's new law for a parole hearing, likely in 2017 or 2018.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press