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The Criminal Justice Clinic and Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic obtained release from prison for Barry Guess and Tyrone Whitaker. Both men had received effective life sentences for conduct they engaged in as teenagers and spent roughly 30 years in prison. At Mr. Guess and Mr. Whitaker’s parole hearings, members of Connecticut’s Board of Pardons and Paroles commented on the extraordinary growth both men had shown. Their accomplishments in prison included Mr. Whitaker’s role as a co-founder of the Skills of Socialization re-entry preparation program and Mr. Guess’s dedicated care for hospice patients.
The students’ representation of Mr. Guess and Mr. Whitaker began in 2016 with legal challenges that sought new sentencing proceedings. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Connecticut Supreme Court have held that sentencing judges must consider youth and its attendant characteristics — such as the inability to fully appreciate risks and consequences—as mitigating factors before sentencing young people to life imprisonment. In Connecticut, sentences of 50 years or more in prison are treated as effective life sentences. The judges who sentenced Mr. Guess and Mr. Whitaker did not give mitigating weight to these factors before imposing effective life sentences. The students argued, before the Connecticut Superior, Appellate, and Supreme Courts, that the two men were entitled to new sentences that would account for their youth at the time of their crimes and their capacity for change.
Life sentences in Connecticut such as the ones Mr. Guess and Mr. Whitaker received have disproportionately been imposed on children of color. At the time the students began representing Mr. Guess and Mr. Whitaker, approximately forty individuals across Connecticut were serving sentences of 50 years or more for crimes committed as youths, and more than 90% of this group were people of color.
When Connecticut’s courts declined to order new sentencing proceedings for Mr. Guess and Mr. Whitaker, the students turned to a sentence modification and parole as alternate routes for securing release from prison. Under Connecticut Public Act 15-84, passed in 2015, people who received lengthy sentences for conduct they engaged in before turning 18 years old became eligible for parole upon serving 60% of their sentences. A sentence modification is a legal mechanism available in Connecticut that permits a judge to revisit a sentence for good cause shown.
In 2018, the students secured a sentence modification for Mr. Whitaker that rendered him immediately eligible for parole. The prosecutor and judge who supported and granted Mr. Whitaker’s sentence modification noted his contributions to the Skills of Socialization program. In the time since Mr. Whitaker received this sentence modification, an increasing number of people in Connecticut have had their sentences shortened through this method.
Later in 2018, a three-member panel of Connecticut’s Board of Pardons & Paroles voted unanimously to release Mr. Whitaker from prison. Today, Mr. Whitaker works with at-risk youth as a Violence Prevention Professional at the Connecticut Violence Intervention Program.
When Mr. Guess became eligible for parole in 2021, a panel of the Board of Pardons & Paroles voted unanimously to release him from prison. Mr. Guess, whose impressive work ethic was noted by the Board at his hearing, has hit the ground running building a new life for himself and reconnecting with family.