House adopts budget measure designed to shrink inmate population

The state House of Representatives adopted the first in a series of measures Tuesday designed to implement the new $40.11 billion biennial budget, ordering new policies to drive down prison populations, ordering several agency mergers and passing several costs onto cities and towns.

The Democrat-controlled House voted 93-52 to approve the measure following a more than three-hour debate. It now heads to the Senate.

With Connecticut’s prison population already down about 1,100 inmates since last September and at its lowest total–17,486–since May 2000, the state is poised to shrink that number by nearly 3,000 more over the next two years.

“This is a way to get better results for less money,” former state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, who heads the Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division said in reference to a provision that would allow the Correction Department commissioner to transfer some inmates serving time for drunken driving, driving with a suspended license, or certain drug possession crimes, to home confinement.

The program, which is focused heavily on rehabilitation, would require participants to take part in treatment services, Lawlor said. It also would use advanced technologies such as global positioning and personal alcohol monitoring systems, as well as video monitoring, to ensure convicts follow all terms of their home confinement.

Lawlor estimated that about 300 current inmates, would be eligible for consideration. It costs about $28,000 annually to incarcerate the male offenders, and slightly more for women, he said. According to nonpartisan legislative fiscal analysts, this could save $1.8 million next fiscal year.

But minority Republicans in the House argued that the program would run afoul of the state Constitution while giving Connecticut a national black eye as a state that is soft on drunken driving.

Rep. John Shaban, R-Redding, said the broad discretion and “loosey-goosey” standards given the correction commissioner to place inmates in home confinement on a case-by-case basis contradicts the legislature’s authority to define appropriate sentencing. “To blanket release somebody steps over the line,” he said, adding that “jamming this into a budget implementer bill causes more problems that it was designed to repair.”

Individuals who could be serving more than a year in prison, a typical sentence for a third conviction for drunken driving, could be released from jail in as little as 30 days, said Rep. David K. Labriola, R-Oxford. “I think this sends an awful signal, not only to the people of Connecticut, but throughout the whole country,” he added. “If you already have a DUI conviction, come to Connecticut.”

A second controversial correction-related provision would reinstate in limited form a “risk reduction” credit system that reduces inmates sentences for good behavior. But unlike the program Connecticut abandoned in 1994, it would not reduce sentences by up to 40 percent, said Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Instead it would reduce sentences by no more than five days per month.

Those credits would hinge on inmates not only avoiding bad behavior, but participating in adult education, mental health or substance abuse counseling or any other programs designed to help them function in society after release.

“This is what the vast majority of other states already do,” Lawlor said, noting that Connecticut would join 42 other states by offering risk reduction credits.

Legislative analysts Connecticut could save $41.8 million combined over the next two fiscal years while reducing the prison population by just under 2,650 inmates. The administration is closing the J.B. Gates Connecticut Correctional Institution in East Lyme on Friday and hopes to close another facility a year from now, Lawlor said.

Another controversial provision in the bill would eliminate cost-sharing of overtime expenses tied to the resident state trooper program. More than 50 smaller communities rely on state troopers to lead their local police forces; the state curently pays 30 percent of all costs and the towns 70 percent.

The new bill would shift all costs associated with overtime to the towns, at a combined cost of $840,000.

“I would submit that $840,000 is an impact and to smaller communities it is a significant one,” said Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield.

But Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, co-chairman of the Public Safety Committee, noted that the new budget closes a $3 billion-plus projected budget deficit while reducing none of the major statutory grants to cities and towns, a package that totals $2.8 billion. “I think the 169 cities and towns made out pretty well overall,” he said.

“There’s no question that overall the budget was a big plus for towns and cities and the resident trooper program remains a bargain,” James Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities said afterward. “The challenge for towns now will be to try to control the overtime costs.”

The bill also reduced the share of municipal school construction costs funded with state dollars. Currently, the share ranges between 20 and 80 percent, per project, depending on a community’s wealth. The new range would be 10 to 70 percent.

The biennial budget adopted in early May was expected to enact most of the agency consolidations and mergers Gov. Dannel P. Malloy unveiled in February, when he sought to boil 81 departments and offices down to 57. But the administration and top lawmakers still are negotiating several other policy bills needed to implement the new budget, and though sources said Tuesday that the final total likely would be close to the governor’s February proposal, the exact number remained undetermined.

Still, the measure approved Tuesday in the House included several mergers and related changes in departmental jurisdiction, including:

  • Dissolving the Department of Public Works. The bill would create a new Department of Construction Services to oversee construction and management of state-owned buildings, while shifting responsibility for acquiring, selling and leasing property to the Department of Administrative Services.
  • Dissolving the Department of Information Technology, the state’s chief technology agency, and merging its functions with Administrative Services.
  • Merging the Public Safety and Emergency Management & Homeland Security departments into a new Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
  • Dissolving the Division of Special Revenue and transferring authority for overseeing state gaming operations to the Department of Consumer Protection.
  • Dissolving the Commission on Child Protection, which ensures children and indigent parents receive needed legal services, and transferring those responsibilities to Public Defender Services Commission.
  • Transferring primary responsibility for staffing the state’s six highway weigh stations from the Motor Vehicles and Public Safety departments to Motor Vehicles.