State on pace to close another prison next fiscal year

After closing two prisons in 2011, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration is well on pace to close a third in the coming fiscal year, running ahead of projections in its ongoing effort to downsize Connecticut’s inmate population.

And Malloy’s chief criminal justice policy adviser said Wednesday that while risk-reduction credits, a new home confinement program, a major policy change involving juveniles and a wide array of re-entry services helped the system reach another population benchmark this month, the state also is winning a bigger battle to reduce recidivism in the future.

The administration’s Criminal Justice Policy & Planning Division reported an average inmate population of 16,973 during the first week in April, under the 17,000-inmate barrier for the first time since 1999.

Connecticut’s inmate population already had reached its lowest mark in 13 years in January. But administration projections didn’t call for the prisoner population to fall below 17,000 until January 2013.

“It’s a very gradual process, and each step along the way you’re checking to make sure everything is stable, but so far, so good,” Michael P. Lawlor, who heads the division, said Friday. “But the only thing that really matters is the recidivism rate of these guys going out the (prison) door. What we really want is less crime. I think we will really see the true value in everything we’ve been doing about five years from now.”

Lawlor has spearheaded a number of administration initiatives to roll back a prison population that tripled during the 1980s, ’90s and the first half of the last decade, and swelled to several thousand inmates beyond normal capacity in 2008.

Risk-reduction credits

Chief among those are the controversial risk-reduction credits authorized by the General Assembly last spring and first implemented last September.

These allow certain types of low-level offenders to shorten their sentences by participating in re-entry services, including adult education, substance abuse recovery, counseling and other programs aimed at improving their chances of success upon release.

The program is not open to offenders convicted of murder or to other violent criminals who receive a mandatory minimum sentence.

According to Lawlor’s office, about 500 inmates discharged each month from prisons have received some amount of time off through the program.

But since participating offenders earn time at a relatively slow pace — no more than five days per month in the program — most participants released so far with credited time off would have been eligible to leave at some point in 2012 even without it.

Lawlor added that since risk-reduction credits were established, the Department of Correction has seen incidents of inmate violence, both against staff and against other inmates, drop over the past six months. “That’s another indication things are moving in the right direction,” he said.

Home confinement for drunken driving

A second initiative the legislature authorized last year, a home confinement program for repeat drunken driving offenders, began two months ago. It enables offenders to serve as few as 30 days in jail, and then the remainder of the sentence through home confinement.

It is aimed particularly at nonviolent offenders with a family and employment who might be better prepared to meet their responsibilities, or even keep their jobs, by serving most of their sentence at home, Lawlor said.

Connecticut currently has 64 offenders sentenced to home confinement through this program. Lawlor said the program likely would grow beyond 100 offenders, but officials don’t want to increase it too quickly until after they monitor and review the results.

Other initiatives

A program begun a few years ago that continues to help reduce inmate populations allows courts to reconsider and lessen the sentence for certain low-level offenders after they have served the first three months of a prison term. This is allowed provided those offenders have demonstrated good behavior and participate in all prescribed re-entry programs.

The inmate population also has been driven down, and likely will shrink some more, due to a major policy change regarding juvenile offenders.

More than one year ago, Connecticut raised the age teens could be tried as adults for most crimes from 16 to 17. The age will increase again, to 18, starting July 1.

According to Lawlor’s office, the under-18 population in Connecticut’s prisons stands at 135 now, compared with 349 in April 2009.

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

Programs aim to curb recidivism

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.

The prison population peaked shortly after the 2007 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 Malloy administration, which has placed a high emphasis on re-entry programs designed to curb recidivism, closed most of the Gates Correctional Institution in East Lyme last year, though one annex building continues to house a few hundred offenders. A second facility, the Bergin Correctional Institution in Mansfield, also closed in 2011. That prison typically held between 900 and 1,050 inmates.

The preliminary $20.4 billion budget for the coming fiscal year calls for one more prison to close at some point before June 30, 2013, and Lawlor said the population trend is well on pace to allow that.

“We are very encouraged by the continued downward trend,” DOC spokesman Brian Garnett said Wednesday. “Everything we do is aimed at preparing the offender for successful re-entry” into society.

But the state employee union representing Connecticut’s prison guards say even with declining inmate levels, they remain wary of any plans to close another prison.

“We have to be cautious about claiming any kind of achievement,” Larry Dorman, spokesman for Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Wednesday, adding that correction officers still feel staffing needs to be upgraded in several facilities.

“The administration needs to be cautious and make sure safety and security are not trumped by dollars and cents,” Dorman said.