Inmate early release credits sparks partisan Senate battle

Majority Democratic lawmakers tried unsuccessfully Friday to avert a partisan battle in the Senate over a new policy designed to shrink the prison population by allowing inmates to earn credits for early release.

The Senate adopted the policy–included in a budget implementation bill–following a 6½ hour debate during which GOP lawmakers criticized a Democratic amendment aimed at curbing objections and offered 12 amendments of their own to limit the credit system.

The bill, which had been adopted in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives on Tuesday without much partisan rancor, now must return to that chamber because Senate Democrats approved it with slight modifications on Friday.

“This has nothing to do with public safety,” said Sen. John A. Kissel of Enfield, ranking Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee, said of the bill, which would institute a “risk reduction” credit system that would reduce some 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 a money-saving bill. This isn’t good public policy,” Kissel added. “It is the entire world turned upside down.”

The measure would prohibit offenders convicted of six of the worst crimes from earning any early release credits, which would be granted based on the discretion of the Department of Correction commissioner, according to former state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, who heads the administration’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division. Those offenses are murder, felony murder, arson murder, capital murder, aggravated sexual assault and home invasion.

Lawlor added that 45 other states current offer similar credits.

But Republicans in both chambers balked shortly after the House approval on Tuesday, arguing they didn’t realize the measure still allowed many violent criminals to earn credits.

The bill restricts, but does not ban, reductions for offenders who have been convicted of one of the 64 violent crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences. Offenders who receive sentences above the minimum level can have that excess reduced.

Republicans also objected to a provision that would allow the correction commissioner to consider inmate participation in counseling and education programs dating back to 2006 to award credits.

But Senate Democrats defended the measure arguing that any savings produced by the bill are a secondary consideration.

The biggest value, they said, involves ensuring that inmates are prepared to be productive citizens once they are released.

“The reality is they do come back to our communities,” said Toni Harp, D-New Haven, said. “So the question is: Are they going to come back to be competent members of our society?”

Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said a key safeguard against dangerous inmates being released is the discretion granted Department of Correction officials to provide–or withhold–credits. “Officials would have to take complete leave of their senses,” to offer credits to inmates who behave poorly and don’t participate in education or counseling programs.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, charged Republican opponents with sending a contradictory message, arguing on one hand that Democrats only want to save dollars by reducing prison populations while the Republicans’ own budget proposal for the next two fiscal years would have slashed the Correction budget by $81 million.

“I’m sorry, it doesn’t add up,” Williams said, adding that failing to get inmates into re-entry programs leads to more victims being harmed as these inmates offend again upon release. “That’s wrong when we know how to do better.”

Connecticut’s prison population already is down about 1,100 inmates since last September and at its lowest total–17,486–since May 2000.

Legislative analysts say 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 closed the J.B. Gates Connecticut Correctional Institution in East Lyme on Friday and hopes to close another facility a year from now, Lawlor said.

Democrats tried to ease Republican objections by adopting an amendment Friday that added the six offenses for which inmates can earn no early release credits. That legislation also specified that inmates cannot earn credits simply through good behavior, but also must participate in re-entry programs recommended by Correction officials.

But Senate Republicans offered 12 amendments to further limit the credit program, all of which were rejected in votes largely along party lines. These included banning participation in the credit program by individuals convicted of human trafficking, sexual assault on children, multiple violent crimes and other violent offenses.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, also made it clear his caucus would oppose the amended bill if it is called for a second debate in the House. “The retroactivity contained in the bill could potentially give certain incarcerated persons up to 300 days off their sentences,” he wrote in a letter to Democratic legislators.