Lawmakers reheat debate over prison-sentence reduction program

Republican state legislators continued their attacks Tuesday on the controversial prison sentence reduction credit program, holding a partisan hearing that Democrats blasted as a campaign season stunt.

GOP members of the Judiciary Committee as well as top Republican leaders invited their Democratic counterparts, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration and members of the Board of Pardons and Parole and others to participate in the hearing.

But while nearly all balked at the opportunity, the state’s victim advocate, Michelle Cruz, continued her criticism of the Risk Reduction Earned Credit program. Cruz again charged that the administration has reduced sentences for some inmates who’ve failed to complete education, counseling or other necessary re-entry programs — a charge the administration insists is false.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators continued to argue that the program should not be available to any inmates convicted of violent offenses.

Democrats, who control both the House and Senate, have said any concerns Republicans have about the credit program should be raised during the regular 2013 General Assembly session, which convenes on Jan. 9.

“There are issues that arise outside of the time when we are in session that demand our attention,” Sen. John A. Kissel of Enfield, the ranking GOP senator on the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday. “Sometimes public safety demands leadership whether we are in public session or not,” Kissel said.

And Kissel and other GOP lawmakers have argued throughout much of the summer that the credit program, which was enacted in 2011, is showing flaws that cannot wait until January to be addressed.

The legislature granted 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.

But Republicans noted that those convicted of other degrees of sexual assault, arson, and many other violent crimes, still can have their sentences reduced.

The program came under more scrutiny on June 27 when a former inmate who had earned credits worth 199 days was charged with fatally shooting a 70-year-old man in a Meriden convenience store. And in July, an East Hartford shop owner was killed by a man who had been released with credits.

“The bottom line is we have a state policy that may very well have led to two murders,” said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield.

But advocates of the program have noted that Frankie Resto, the man charged in the Meriden incident, was eligible for parole more than four months before he was released.

And Kezlyn Mendez, who was charged in the East Hartford incident had been eligible for parole on March 29 without the credits he earned — one day after his actual release date.

The GOP also intensified its criticism in early August when Cruz charged at a press conference that some offenders have received credits merely for signing up for re-entry programs, rather than completing them.

Cruz, who heads a nonpartisan, independent office, said Tuesday that since she made that charge, her requests for information from the Correction Department have gone unaddressed for six weeks.

“We are calling upon the administration to suspend this initiative in order to safeguard the public. Convicts who show little or no interest in changing their behavior should not be receiving any breaks from the state of Connecticut,” House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk,  said.

But Correction Department spokesman Brian Garnett said the agency “has been responsive to all of the requests that have been provided by the Office of the Victim Advocate,” adding that “a couple of minor matters are outstanding” but the department contacted Cruz’s office last week to try to clarify those matters.

And former state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, who is Malloy’s chief criminal justice policy adviser, said neither Cruz nor GOP leaders of the Judiciary Committee have contacted his office to discuss the credit program.

“People can have philosophical differences of opinion, but you have to know what you’re talking about,” he said. “This is complicated stuff.”

Lawlor said those who fail to complete re-entry programs do not receive credits. He also refuted a charge from Cruz that inmates who refused to complete programs related to their crimes — such as anger management counseling for a violent offender — still were allowed to earn credits for job training or other secondary programs.

“That’s not the case,” Lawlor said.

He added that Republicans held Tuesday’s hearing even though they knew the Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Committee — a panel comprising Executive and Judicial branch criminal justice officials — already had scheduled a Sept. 27 meeting to review the credit program.

“This was a political stunt,” he said. “This was a press release inviting people to come to a public event with just Republicans.”

But there was at least one Democrat in the room. Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield of New Haven, vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, attended the hearing though he didn’t ask any questions or make statements.

“I’m not going to allow it to look like we don’t care, because we do,” he said afterward.