State prison population reaches lowest point since 2001

With Connecticut’s prison population now at a 10-year low, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s criminal justice policy advisor said Connecticut could make significant further reductions with new strategies for handling persons accused but not yet convicted of crimes.

Former state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, who gave up his post as long-time co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee to head the administration’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, said Thursday that the prison system’s unsentenced population “is the thing that really jumps off the page right now.”

Lawlor’s division within the Office of Policy and Management reported this week that the overall incarcerated population fell to 17,746 on Jan. 1, 426 inmates below the level recorded Dec. 1 and 307 below Jan. 1 2010. More importantly, that’s the lowest year-start population recorded since 2001, when 17,137 inmates were held.

But while 17 percent of Connecticut’s inmates were unsentenced in 2001, that ratio had grown to 21 percent by the latest monthly population report released this week.

Connecticut is one of just six states that hold unsentenced prisoners in correctional facilities, rather than in a separate county jails or comparable regional institutions.

The 3,694 unsentenced inmates reported this month is roughly 1,000 above the level reported 10 years ago.

And while Lawlor said he believed the overall population has the potential to shrink in 2011 at the same pace it did in 2010 — if nothing new is done — “there are some changes that could accelerate that, if done right.”

One strategy for the new administration and General Assembly to consider, Lawlor said, is to recognize what he calls “the hyper-inflation in bail bond amounts.”

As numbers of bail bondsmen in Connecticut have grown considerably over the last decade, there have been increasing concerns that many are charging clients discounted fees and accepting payment by credit–in violation of state rules.

Lawlor said he believes that police, bail commissioners and judges have tried to compensate for this trend by setting higher bond amounts. In some instances, this increased the numbers of accused who fail to make bail and must await their court appearance in prison.

A 2003 study by the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee concluded that the bail industry is “dangerously unregulated” and that fee under-cutting, posting of fraudulent bonds and other illegal practices are “pervasive and persistent.”

But while several reforms were proposed to fix and enforce bond fees and other practices, the legislature has failed to reach consensus and enact anything in recent years.

“I believe that’s a major factor behind the unsentenced population, but it’s still an area where we can make a real change,” Lawlor said.

The OPM undersecretary said Connecticut also can drive down its unsentenced population to by continuing to prioritize resources for successful programs like the Judicial Branch’s jail re-interview process.

This program re-examines the backgrounds of those who are incarcerated awaiting trial and in some cases reduce their bonds. In other cases, Lawlor said, these reviews identify nonviolent individuals in need of substance abuse treatment or mental health services–problems that can be addressed more cost-effectively in community-based settings than in prison.

Department of Correction spokesman Brian Garnett said Thursday that the 10-year-low in the overall prison population could be attributed both to the community-based, rehabilitation programs launched in 2004 as well as parole and probate reforms ordered after the 2007 home invasion murders in Cheshire.

“That’s the foundation that’s reversed years of population increases,” he said. “It’s paying huge dividends.”

Garnett also praised the re-interview process as an effective tool for managing the unsentenced population.

Connecticut’s prison population, which stood as low as 6,000 in the mid-1980s, rose steadily over the past two decades, due in part to tougher sentencing policies adopted in 1993 and 1994. But Lawlor said it also could be attributed to policy changes and new societal attitudes that lead to increased reporting of certain crimes.

The effects of those changes, in turn, can be multiplied by factors within the criminal justice system itself. For example, Lawlor said, if more people overall are being sentenced, it stands to reason that more people will be receiving probation. The single most common crime for which inmates are incarcerated, he said, is violation of probation.

The prison population peaked shortly after the Cheshire home invasion due in large part to a suspension of one of the primary procedures for issuing paroles. The population reached 19,894 in February 2008.

The state employee unions representing Connecticut’s prison guards and their front-line supervisors say the system was built to handle a capacity of about 16,000, and that overcrowding problems still exist at some facilities. Matt O’Connor, spokesman for the union representing about 600 correction officer supervisors, said Friday that guard staffing levels still haven’t recovered fully from losses incurred during layoffs ordered in 2003 and retirement incentive programs offered in 2003 and 2009.

Lawlor, whose division will issue its prison population forecast for 2011 next month, did not comment on whether any facility closures or consolidations were likely to be included in Malloy’s budget proposal for the next two fiscal years, which is due to the legislature on Feb. 16.

Connecticut last opened a new prison in 1995 with the Northern Correctional Institute in Somers, a 365-bed facility. About five units totaling 500 beds were added to the McDougall-Walker prison in Suffield in 2004.

Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell ordered the closure of a small facility, the 200-bed Webster Correctional Institution in Cheshire, in December 2009. The move saved an estimated $3.4 million per year.