Lawmakers want review of prison sentence-reduction program

Republican legislative leaders called Thursday for an informational hearing on a controversial program that allows prison inmates to reduce their sentences in exchange for participating in re-entry programs.

The appeal made by Sen. John A. Kissel of Enfield and John Hetherington of New Canaan, the ranking Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, came one week after the state’s victim advocate also questioned the Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program.

Republican lawmakers, both on the committee and in caucus leadership posts, have “a high level of uncertainty and concern over the implementation of the program,” Kissel and Hetherington wrote.

Much of that stems from a June 27 incident in Meriden during which a former inmate who had earned credits worth 199 days was charged with fatally shooting a 70-year-old man in a convenience store.

“The enabling legislation, as approved by the majority in the legislature, granted substantial discretion to the commissioner of (the Department of) Correction to develop and administer the program,” Kissel and Hetherington said. “Even those who supported the concept are now questioning the manner in which it is being implemented.”

The two Republican lawmakers added that State Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz held a press conference last week and questioned whether offenders receive credits merely for signing up for counseling, education and other programs needed to prepare them to re-enter society — or for completing these programs.

“There seems to be a significant amount of confusion,” said North Haven Republican Len Fasano, the Senate minority leader pro tem.

The co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, and Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

But former Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael Lawlor, who now serves as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s chief criminal justice policy adviser, said Thursday that he agrees there is plenty of confusion about the program, but also said it is premature to consider changing the legislation adopted in 2011.

“I personally am happy to meet with the [committee members] and explain any part of the law they have questions about,” he said.

The statute gives the correction commissioner authority to grant inmates credits worth up to five days off their sentence for each month they participate in re-entry programs.

It also allowed the commissioner to assign credits retroactively for programs inmates had participated in as far back as 2006.

Inmates convicted of some of the most extreme violent crimes — murder, felony murder, arson murder, first-degree aggravated sexual assault and home invasion — are not eligible to earn credits.

Perhaps the largest misconception about the program, Lawlor said, is that it is largely responsible for the declining inmate population.

But the 10,250 inmates discharged from Connecticut prisons during the first six months of 2012 is not much larger than the 10,050 released during the first half of 2011, he noted.

The man charged in the Meriden shooting, Frankie Resto, originally was sentenced to six years and three months in prison for two counts of first-degree robbery. If he had served the full sentence, he would have remained in jail until this November.

Applying the 199 days worth of risk-reduction credits he earned pushed the end of that sentence back to April 2012.

But he actually was supposed to be released earlier, due to another statute unrelated to risk reduction credits.

Because of the violent nature of his crime, Resto had to serve at least 85 percent of his sentence. That means, though, that he could have been paroled in October 2011.

The state parole board opted not to release him then, but did vote in January to approve Resto’s release effective in February — two months before the risk-reduction earned credits even came into play.

Lawlor said Resto wasn’t released in February due only to a technicality: The parole board was unable to contact Resto’s mother. The parolee was to live with his mother, who was to serve as his parole sponsor.

Resto finally was released in April.

“In most cases, the only way you’re really getting out the door early is if the parole board approves it,” Lawlor said.

Still, Fasano said that as the risk-reduction system continues, it is possible that inmates could accrue enough credits to be eligible to leave, even if the parole board hasn’t been inclined to grant parole up to that point.

Since the 2007 home invasion that led to the slaying of a Cheshire woman and her two daughters, state officials have increased resources for the parole board to improve dramatically its ability to assess inmates’ readiness to re-enter society, Fasano said.

“What happens if the parole board disagrees” with a potential inmate release dictated by risk-reduction credits, Fasano asked. “We turned this over to the correction commissioner without fully understanding all of this. We need to look at it again.”