Legislators are considering limits on a state program that allows inmates to earn time off their sentence as part of comprehensive legislation in response to the tragic school shooting in Newtown.
The changes would restrict the program to only non-violent offenders. Previously, other bills proposed changes – or even outright repeal – of the program. The judiciary committee held a public hearing on two of them in March.
The proposal adopts an idea from H.B. 6657 requiring violent offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence regardless of credits earned toward early release.
Another bill, S.B. 123, would have repealed the program.
Governor Dannel Malloy signed Public Act 11-51 into law in 2011 establishing Risk Reduction Earned Credits. The program is open to inmates sentenced for crimes committed on or after Oct. 1, 1994. Inmates serving time for capital murder, capital felony, felony murder, arson murder, aggravated sexual assault and home invasion are not eligible.
The policy established numerous programs including substance abuse counseling, parenting classes, mental health treatment, GED classes and trade skills classes, all aimed at helping offenders make a smoother transition into life after prison with the hope of reducing recidivism.
Credits became available on Oct. 1, 2011, and the law gave officials until July 1, 2012, to choose program participants.
After Department of Correction officials reviewed the inmates on several criteria including criminal and disciplinary history, those chosen for the program received an accountability plan. Inmates who followed this plan, met behavioral expectations and participated in the enrichment programs earned credits that reduced their sentences by a maximum of five days per month, or 60 days per year.
These credits could be revoked for behavioral misconduct and non-compliance. Offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences are still required to complete their full prison terms, regardless of any earned credits.
“The last four or five years have been a time of extraordinary progress in the criminal justice system if you measure progress by a reduction in crime, a reduction in recidivism, a reduction in victimization, and a reduction in spending,” Michael Lawlor, the undersecretary for criminal justice and planning for Malloy, said at a legislative hearing.
Lawlor added that one of the goals of the administration is to “restore public confidence” by enacting various reforms aimed reducing the racial disparities that have led to a disproportionate number of minorities in the criminal justice system.
The population of sentenced prisoners has decreased statewide from 13,591 in July 2011, prior to implementing the credits, to 12,955 in January 2012, 12,484 in July 2012, and 12,110 in January 2013.
According to Lawlor, all of this reduction is accounted for by fewer African Americans and Latinos in the prison population.
The policy was met with controversy from the beginning, but particularly came under fire following the robbery and murder of a Meriden convenience store owner on June 27, 2012. Frankie Resto is charged with the crime.
Opponents of the program have used the Resto case as their linchpin.
Sen. Michael McLachlan R-Danbury, cites the Meriden incident as evidence that the credits program constitutes a “dangerous public policy.”
Economics professor and critic of conventional prison policy Daniel D’amico says this reaction reveals an availability heuristic, a mental shortcut that allows the memory of recent events influence their views on the likelihood of similar events happening in the future. This colors their perception of a given policy or situation.
According to McLachlan, Resto earned 199 days of risk reduction credits.
Lawlor countered that Resto served 91 percent of his sentence due to the current administration’s policy of targeting violent offenders. “There’s never been a time in Connecticut when people like Frank Resto did more than 91 percent of their sentences,” said Lawlor, adding that “a year or two ago he would have gotten out at the 85 percent mark.”
According to Leo Arnone, the recently retired Department of Correction commissioner, offenders served an average of 95 percent of their sentences and only earned an average of 61 days of credit. Arnone opposes SB123 but supports HB6647.
“Given the devastating impact Frankie Resto’s early release has had on the community that I live in and represent, the only responsible decision is to enact immediate and decisive changes in the interest of public safety,” said Sen. Dante Bartolomeo D-Meriden, at the hearing. “While I respect the intent of the program and its efforts to reduce recidivism, there are simply too many violent individuals abusing this initiative.”
Bartolomeo feels SB123 “goes too far” and sees HB6657 as not quite specific enough, but a step in the right direction. She sees clear distinctions between violent and nonviolent offenders crucial to reform and calls for the program to include more disqualifying offenses.
“We would be better served by retaining the program for the benefit of these individuals while enacting more restrictions with regards to violent offenders,” she said.