Prison budget a favorite target, but inmate numbers won’t decline

Proposals to close prisons and speed up inmate releases have become increasingly popular in recent years as state officials grapple with continuing budget deficits of massive proportions.

But while Connecticut’s inmate population has receded from the record mark of nearly 20,000 two years ago, research from criminal justice planners says the number of prisoners the state must house, feed, guard and care for will remain relatively stable over the next two years.

That could put one of the state’s biggest expenses largely off-limits as the next legislature and governor tackle a projected $3.4 billion budget shortfall next year.

“Without major changes in existing sentencing trends and guidelines, prison admits and the mean-length-of-stay of inmates should remain relatively constant,” the state Office of Policy and Management’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division wrote in their 2010 inmate population forecast, adding that numbers of offenders in community-based programs should increase, further stabilizing or modestly reducing the prison ranks.

Hartford Community Correctional Center

Hartford Communty Correction Center: Inmate populations remaining stable (Keith M. Phaneuf)

That report estimates that inmate levels, which averaged 18,265 in total among Connecticut’s 17 operating prisons in May, will stand at just over 18,000 next February, when the next governor presents a plan to balance the 2011-12 budget.

But given that the prison system, which hasn’t featured a new facility since 1996, was designed to hold about 17,000 inmates, closing any major residential areas could pose a challenge, Matt O’Connor, spokesman for the union that represents correction officer supervisors, said Wednesday.

“There is an incorrect belief that our prisons are not overcrowded and that our staffing levels are not dangerously low,” he said.

Rep. Karen Jarmoc, D-Enfield, whose home community hosts three prisons and who chaired a 2009 legislative task force on prison overcrowding, has objected repeatedly in recent years to facility program space being converted to provide sleeping space for inmates.

“There’s been a decrease in the prison population, but we still have significant issues. There’s still not adequate bed space,” she said, adding that housing prisoners in sections not designed for them to live and sleep in raises concerns. “I think that puts staff security at risk.”

Those numbers are far from the record-setting average daily count of 19,894 inmates in February 2008, a spike that largely reflected policy decisions made by Gov. M. Jodi Rell in the wake of the July 2007 Cheshire home invasion that led to the killing of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters.

Rell suspended all paroles in the wake of that incident and she and the legislature overhauled the parole review process; the prison population grew between August and December 2007 at a rate of 317 inmates per month.

But between October 2008 and January 2010, the report continued, the inmate population declined at a fast pace, about 107 per month.

O’Connor said this decrease, while favorable, unfortunately led to “short-sighted proposals” over the past 18 months.

Rell proposed studying the closure of one prison in February 2009 as part of her budget plan for the 2009-2011 biennium. And in December she announced she would close Webster Correctional Institution in Cheshire, one of the state’s smallest prisons with just over 200 beds. The move was expected to save $3.4 million per year, the administration reported.

Majority Democrats in the legislature were chastised by the governor and by her fellow Republicans in the House and Senate when they attempted to force the closure of two, unnamed prisons in a biennial budget plan on June 26, 2009 – just five days before the beginning of the new fiscal year. But that proposal was part of a budget plan that also included $2.5 billion in tax and fee hikes over two years, and was vetoed by Rell.

Correction Department spokesman Brian Garnett said policy decisions regarding sentencing and early release are left to the legislature and governor, but noted that prison officials have very limited discretion to determine when inmates are eligible for early release programs.

The governor and legislature did agree to increase the window of time during which Department of Correction officials can order a re-entry furlough, and thereby place a soon-to-be-released inmate in a supervised, community setting to assist with job placement, counseling, or other rehabilitative efforts. Furloughs, which previously could be approved only 30 days prior to release, now can be approved during the final 45 days. Rell had once suggested boosting the time window to 60 days, while an unsuccessful legislative proposal would have pushed it to 90 days.

“I understand it’s not easy to strike a balance when you are faced with a big budget deficit, but I think we’ve got to try to err on the side of public safety,” said Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, who also served on Jarmoc’s task force. “I’ve always considered public safety to be one of the big things government owes its citizens.”

Guglielmo conceded some officials may be tempted next year to look for big savings again in the Correction Department, which has one of the largest agency budgets in state government. For the fiscal year that begins July 1, just under $651 million out of $19.01 billion will be spent on the department.

But Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, longtime co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said state government can trim, if not dramatically reduce, its prison costs simply by continuing to make wise investments it began in the mid-2000s.

Expanded funding for housing, education, substance abuse treatment and other key rehabilitative services can stem repeat offenses and continue to gradually shrink the prison population, even if it doesn’t decline at the same rate as it did in recent years, he said.

Roughly one-ninth of the inmate population is serving time for violation of probation, Lawlor said, adding Connecticut already has had success in reducing that number by adding more probation officers and providing other resources to help reduce officer caseloads.

“I think the commitment is there to keep doing the kind of things that will take the pressure off of the prison system,” Lawlor said. While the rate of decline in the inmate population has slowed, he said, he still believes Connecticut can reduce the population by another 1,000 within the next few years. “If you keep doing these things, the population will come down.”

An OPM study released earlier this year, which tracked 16,241 offenders between 2005 and 2008, found that between 25 and 28 percent of released inmates who completed transitional supervision or parole programs were re-incarcerated for new crimes within three years of their release, compared with a recidivism rate of 36.6 percent for all offenders.

The Correction Department budget has dropped gradually over the past two fiscal years from a peak of more than $710 million in 2008-09. Though there is one month remaining in the current year, the department is one pace to spend roughly $670 million, and has a $651 million bottom line approved for 2010-11.

OPM Undersecretary Brian Austin Jr., who leads the Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, agreed Wednesday with Lawlor that investments in re-entry programs and resources for probation and parole officials – coupled with the parole reforms ordered by Rell and the legislature – all combined to produce the inmate population drop experienced over the past 16 months.

“When we put more resources into these areas, into the community, the process changed drastically,” he said. “We do believe there is some room for more people to be safely supervised in the community, but we’re not projecting a significant change.”