HARTFORD — – Trent Butler is a poster child for second chances.
After a tumultuous adolescence and 14 years in prison, Butler got serious about life. He graduated from college and now holds down two jobs while pursuing a master's degree in criminal justice.
"People make mistakes, and we hurt families and we do terrible things," said Butler, whose 45-year sentence on an accessory to murder charge was overturned by the state Supreme Court, leading to his release. "But I believe everybody deserves another opportunity to get out here and be productive…Life is beautiful on this side."
Butler came to the state Capitol Thursday to testify before a commission weighing changes to sentencing policies for juveniles. A recent U.S. Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama, holds that life sentences for offenders under 18 are unconstitutional and requires states to provide young prisoners with "a meaningful opportunity" to seek release.
The hearing was marked by often emotional testimony from dozens of people who spoke about the power of redemption and the need for fresh starts. Commission members spoke of brain science and a juvenile's under-developed capacity for understanding the consequences of their behavior. And they heard from urban leaders who said having a large percentage of young people in prison takes a social and economic toll on a community.
But the panel also heard from someone with a sharply different perspective: John Cluny, who lost his wife and 14-year-old son when a 15-year-old neighbor barged into the family's Norwich home in 1993 and shot them to death. Cluny cataloged his losses, from the financial devastation he experienced following the crime to the grandchildren he will never had.
"This kid should never see the outside of a prison ever again in my opinion," Cluny said. "You give him a break when you can bring my 14-year-old son back to life and my wife...if you can do that, you give him a break...if you can't do that, you deny this."
The Connecticut Sentencing Commission isn't proposing automatic early release for those who committed youthful offenses but rather the establishment of a mechanism that would allow such prisoners to seek release. The panel is considering proposals that will be submitted to the legislature in advance of the upcoming session.
The challenge, said Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane, is striking a balance between the need for justice for crime victims and the rights of young offenders.
"There are two extremely dramatic sides to what we're hearing to day,'' said Kane, an ex-officio member of the commission.
"We're not here to say, 'everybody, we're going to reduce sentences and let these people out.' We're here to try find a vehicle in which…an honest and just determination could be made as to who should stay in forever, because there are some who should stay in forever, and who should be able to come out,'' Kane said.
Some young offenders deserve "an opportunity not only to have their own lives and be productive citizens but to save other people's lives and leave this world…a better place," Kane said.
But Kane, who prosecuted the killer of Cluny's family nearly two decades ago and said the details of the horrific crime remain vivid, also sought to reassure crime victims. "I don't want you to feel that we're just opening up the [jail] and letting everybody out,'' he said. "We're struggling hard among ourselves."
Tyquanna Whitaker's father has been incarcerated for just about her entire life. "It's hard for me growing up without a dad,'' the 24-year-old told the panel, her voice wavering.
Tyrone Whitaker was 17 in 1989, when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison. "I just want him home, he's missed out on so much.
"I'm not saying he's an angel, I'm not saying he's a saint but he is a good person,'' Tyquanna Whitaker added. "He's done his time, I feel like he paid his debt to society."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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