GOP to hold hearing on prison credits without Democratic participation

A new rift opened this week in the ongoing partisan dispute over a state program that allows prison inmates to shorten their sentences by participating in education, counseling and other re-entry programs.

Minority Republicans on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee announced they would conduct a Sept. 18 informational meeting at the Legislative Office Building on the risk reduction earned credit program.

What they will learn at that hearing is in doubt though, since both the committee’s Democratic majority and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration have opted not to participate.

Republican legislators have been pressing for a review of the program this summer, largely in connection with a June 27 incident in Meriden during which a former inmate who had earned credits was charged with fatally shooting a 70-year-old man in a convenience store.

But Democrats have countered that the GOP has largely distorted the impact of credits awarded to Frankie Resto of Meriden, the suspect charged in the shooting.

“There are issues that arise outside the times when we are formally in session that still demand attention,” Sen. John A. Kissel of Enfield, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday.

The legislature enacted a statute in 2011 that gives the Department of 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.

Resto was originally 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.

Republicans have noted that Resto, who had earned 199 days’ worth of credits, got out in April.

But they often don’t mention that — regardless of the credit system — Resto was eligible for parole consideration anytime after October 2011, by which point he had served 85 percent of his sentence.

Roy Occhiogrosso, senior policy adviser to the Democratic governor, said it’s no accident that the GOP informational meeting is being conducted in the midst of a state legislative campaign.

“They are not in a serious public policy discussion,” he said, accusing the GOP of “deliberately spreading false information. … It’s a political stunt and it won’t work.”

Occhiogrosso added that crime rates in Connecticut are at their lowest point in four decades and anti-recidivism efforts are reducing prison populations.

State Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz did hold a press conference earlier this month, questioning whether some offenders have received credits merely for signing up for re-entry programs — rather than for completing them.

And former state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, Malloy’s criminal justice policy adviser, has said there may be some aspects of the program that lawmakers might want to review during the next regular legislative session, which starts in January.

And the Democratic co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Eric Coleman of Bloomfield and Rep. Gerald Fox of Stamford, said others on the committee have asked for informational hearings now on gun control and other issue.

The best approach, they wrote last week to top Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, is for the GOP to direct questions either to Lawlor or to the Correction Department, rather than to organize an informational meeting.

“We do take your request very seriously,” Coleman and Fox wrote.

Kissel called the charge of political grandstanding to be unfair. “I view public safety as an issue of paramount importance,” he added. “I owe it to my constituents. If this system has problems, every week or month that goes by puts the public in danger.”