Within a dense 289-page budget implementer bill passed by the House of Representatives Tuesday was a significant policy change to the state Department of Corrections, aimed at gradually decreasing the prison inmate population.
The provision would allow prison inmates to earn credits toward early release by participating in programs designed to ease their transition back into society. The program would allow inmates to earn a maximum of five days per month, to be taken off the end of their period of incarceration.
Connecticut is currently one of a small number of states in the nation that does not offer some sort of “good time” program, Office of Policy and Management Undersecretary of Criminal Justice Michael P. Lawlor, said.
“Forty-five other states have incentives to do the right thing while in prison,” Lawlor said.
To be eligible, inmates must participate in programs like drug treatment or earning their GEDs. Lawlor said the concept has proven successful in other states by reducing the rate of recidivism.
“We’re very confident, based on results from the rest of the country, people will commit less crime,” he said.
Corrections Department Commissioner Leo Arnone told other state commissioners and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that such programs are far more effective than letting inmates finish their sentences without reintegration programming.
“The quick way to explain this is giving someone a $75 check and dumping them off under a bridge in New Haven at the end of his sentence does not do anyone any good. Any cop will tell you, that’s exactly where the next crime will occur,” he said.
And lawmakers with prisons in their districts seem generally receptive to that concept.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, agreed with Arnone’s assessment of what happens when inmates are just dropped off in their home cities.
But the provision helps also with keeping inmate populations at a safe and manageable level, he said. And that’s an important consideration, especially in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision calling for the state of California to reduce its inmate population by 33,000, Kissel said.
It’s important to make sure dangerous criminals remain in prison, he said. Inmates should be released if they have participated in the programs, not to achieve cost savings obtained by shutting down wings of prisons, he said.
“We don’t want to put anyone’s safety in jeopardy,” he said.
Rep. David Kiner, D-Enfield, said also that he supports the idea and its goal to reduce recidivism but he said he’s also a little wary of the idea.
“We have to be very careful not to release people who shouldn’t be released early,” he said.
Some prisoners like those who have committed a capital felony, are excluded from access to the program.
Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, said that while she is supportive of the concept of risk reduction credits, she would have liked the program to be available to a smaller number of inmates.
“Some fairly high-level inmates will qualify, including some who have committed assault,” she said, adding she only wanted it to include low-risk, non-violent inmates.
Bacchiochi said she wouldn’t be supporting the budget implementer anyway. For one thing, she said she didn’t support the budget so would not vote for a bill to implement it. But lawmakers were given notice that the bill would be raised at about 8:45 p.m. Monday. That left little time to digest the contents of the near-300 page document, she said.
Republicans also criticized the provision for keeping the program open to some sex offenders.
House Minority Leader Larry Cafero blasted the implementer as containing “scores of bills that have absolutely nothing to do with budget.” He later asked fellow lawmakers, “Did you ever think you’d be voting on a bill, 289 pages, that includes release time for pedophiles? I didn’t,” he said.
Republicans offered an amendment that would have made sex offenders ineligible for the program but that change was voted down 64-79.
But Lawlor said that violent sex offenders are already excluded. And it is important to encourage people convicted of low-level sex crimes to get treatment while in prison, he said.
Those people will eventually be released from prison and treatment has been proven to make them less likely to commit the crime again, he said.
The implementer bill passed the House 93-52. It will now move on to the Senate calendar.