A proposal to change legislation adopted last year that angered some victims of violent crimes has run into roadblocks — including one that could put those victims in a worse position than if there were no fix at all.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has been working on changing a law passed last year that would allow people convicted of crimes to earn time off their minimum prison sentences.
That law outraged some victims of violent crimes, and they told the committee last month that no changes should be allowed in the prison terms for the people convicted in their cases, particularly after they were handed down years ago.
A proposal this session, S.18, aims to remove the allowance for shaving down minimum sentences for crimes such as murder, kidnapping and sexual assault. However, all prisoners not serving a life-without-parole sentence would still be eligible to earn time off from a prison term. For all those cases, the time is set at seven days a month.
The proposed legislation also includes a “compassionate release” provision that would make any offenders who are 65 or older, not serving a life-without-parole sentence, and have already served at least five years in prison eligible for parole. Any such person must also complete any required programs and not have received any disciplinary rule violations in the previous 12 months.
At least two of the committee’s five members had concerns during a hearing Wednesday with the compassionate release provision, calling it too expansive, and they also asked why it was not tied to a prisoner’s medical condition.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the committee chair, said the compassionate release provision should apply only to older inmates who suffer from a debilitating medical condition.
“Jeezum,” said Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, a committee member. “I’m not big on this.”
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, a committee member, said she strongly supports the provision as written, pointing out the same language was part of a bill that the Senate passed last year, but was stripped out in the House.
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“I think it’s really important,” White said, pointing out that the compassionate release provision would only make a person eligible for parole. It would still be up to the parole board to make the final decision, she said, based on several factors — including a person’s risk to reoffend.
Sears replied that older people convicted of serious violent crimes would only have to serve five years before being eligible for parole, regardless of the sentence.
“I’m thinking of Bernie Madoff,” Sears said, referring to the New York financier convicted of looting billions in a massive Ponzi-scheme and sentenced to 150 years in person at age 71 .
“Fortunately,” White responded, “he’s not under our jurisdiction.”
Assistant Attorney General David Scherr, speaking at Wednesday’s hearing, referred to testimony the committee heard earlier this session from Ned and JoAnn Winterbottom, whose daughter, Laura Winterbottom, was murdered in 2005. Gerard Montgomery was convicted of Laura Winterbottom’s murder and sentenced to 43 years to life in prison.
The Winterbottoms urged the committee earlier this year not to allow earned time off for prisoners convicted of violent crimes, such as Montgomery. If S.18 passes, Montgomery would no longer earn time off his sentence, Scheer said, but he could become eligible for parole several years earlier than if he earned time off, based on when he turns 65.
“They would be in a worse position,” Scherr said of the Winterbottoms, if the bill passes as is.
Another debate Wednesday centered on whether to add manslaughter to the crimes for which a prisoner could earn time off the minimum sentence. The committee decided to put off any action on the legislation until Thursday.
As the hearing ended Wednesday, Defender General Matthew Valerio told the committee that changes in last year’s legislation would likely face a court challenge, since he doesn’t believe a right, once given to a person, can be taken away.
“We’re looking forward to, if it passes, dealing with it in the courts,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled David Scherr’s name and, due to an editing error, included an inaccurate quotation in the headline.
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