Shrinking prison population bucks typical summer growth trend

After dropping a healthy 4 percent last year, Connecticut’s shrinking prison population is even bucking the traditional summer trend that swells inmate numbers as the temperatures rise.

Prison Population Chart

Click the image to be brought to an interactive chart. (Source: OPM)

And according to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s chief criminal justice policy adviser, this trend –driven by anti-recidivism programs, alternatives to incarceration and declining arrests — could push Connecticut’s inmate population near or below 16,000 for the first time in 14 years by the end of 2012.

The Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division reported an average inmate population Tuesday of 16,586 for the first week of July.

“The prison population continues to drop at a rate and in a manner that defies historical modeling,” the office wrote in its July report. “This rate of decline in the prison population is without precedent in Connecticut.”

With the exception of a modest jump in February, the latest report marks the eighth time in nine months that inmate totals have fallen. And while spiking arrests typically drive up the prison population between late spring and early autumn, the total has fallen 2.2 percent since April.

“Normally the numbers would start to creep up in May and June,” former state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, who heads the division, said Monday. “But the numbers are headed in the right direction.”

The inmate population, which currently stands 3.6 percent below the administration’s forecast for July 2012, once stood as low as 6,000 in the mid-1980s. It rose steadily over the next 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 slayings, due in large part to  the temporary suspension of one of the primary procedures for issuing paroles. The population topped out at 19,894 in February 2008. Inmate totals now are down 17 percent from that peak.

“There’s no one singular thing that drives this” latest trend in declining population, Lawlor said. He added that because state government has taken a multifaceted approach, the numbers should continue to drop, and could fall below 16,000 by year’s end.

“All of the tools are really falling into place,” Lawlor said.

Initiatives bearing fruit

Lawlor has spearheaded a number of administration initiatives to roll back a prison population. Chief among those are the controversial risk-reduction credits authorized by the General Assembly last year and first implemented in September.

These allow certain types of 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.

A second initiative the legislature authorized last year — a home confinement program for repeat drunken driving offenders — has enabled more than 100 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.

About 80 percent of the offenders in this program continue to hold jobs, Lawlor said. They are permitted to leave their homes to work, but are monitored electronically to ensure they go nowhere else.

“Why should the taxpayers be spending the money to care for them around the clock,” Lawlor said, noting that because incarcerated offenders can’t cover other obligations — such as child support — those burdens also typically fall on the public.

Lawlor also said the state should explore to see if the program could be expanded to rehabilitate other types of offenders in a similar cost-efficient fashion.

‘On the same page’

Department of Correction spokesman Brian Garnett said he also expects the gradual decline in population to continue, also attributing the drop to more than an overall reduction in arrests.

“We now have the entire Connecticut community on the same page,” he said, noting that the collaborative effort to curb recidivism includes not just the DOC and Lawlor’s office, but also the Judicial Branch, the public defender’s office and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

The Judicial Branch’s jail re-interview program re-examines the backgrounds of those who are incarcerated awaiting trial and in some cases reduces their bonds. In other cases 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.

The Malloy administration 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.

And Garnett said that while renovation work has limited options right now to close more prisons, the administration continues to look for opportunities to close facility sections or housing units as inmate levels drop.

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.

Chart by Nicholas Rondinone based on data from the state Office of Policy and Management.