Parole reforms stall 5-year decline in prison population

Complications in reforming the state’s parole system have put the state’s nearly five-year decline in prison population on hold, according to a recent report from criminal justice policy analysts.

And while one reform enacted following last winter’s fatal shooting in Newtown could push inmate numbers upward, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s chief criminal justice adviser said efforts to rehabilitate low-risk, nonviolent offenders in the community would continue.

Michael P. Lawlor, who heads the Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, also predicted that parole system reforms would be smoothed out by early next year, paving the way for further steady, gradual reductions in the prison population.

“As recently as a year ago, it would have been reasonable to project that the state’s prison population could dip into the 15,000s within the next few years,” Lawlor’s office wrote in a recent report. “… Given the current trends, it is hard to visualize a scenario where the prison population would fall below 16,000 any time soon.”

Through the first week in July, the average inmate population stood at 17,001. That’s up 654 inmates or 4 percent, since January. It’s also 3 percent higher than the level Lawlor’s office projected at the start of the year for July.

More importantly, the January-to-July surge ends the gradual, steady decline in prison numbers that has happened since they peaked at 19,894 in February 2008.

In the first five months after the September 2007 Cheshire home invasion that resulted in the slaying of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, Gov. M. Jodi Rell had suspended one component of the inmate parole system, swelling prison population numbers.

But the Malloy administration has used a new home confinement program, a major policy change involving juveniles, and sentencing-reducing credits to build upon a wide array of re-entry services launched over the last decade – all designed to rehabilitate more nonviolent offenders in the community and to better prepare all offenders to re-enter society successfully.

In Connecticut, it costs an average of $45,000 to house an inmate for a year. The cost ranges from $20,000 to more than $100,000 for those in maximum security prisons or for those with serious mental illness.

By comparison, the average, annual cost for an inmate in federal prison is $29,027, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

When the state recorded an average population of 16,973 during the first week in April 2012, it marked the first time levels had dipped below the 17,000-inmate mark since 1999.

But the population numbers started to change in 2013, even though the numbers of people getting arrested, and getting sentenced to prison, both are down.

Further complicating matters, the numbers of violent offenders – those compelled under state law to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence in prison – also had not swelled.

What that means, Lawlor said, is the numbers of inmates incarcerated for other crimes are being paroled more slowly.

Specifically, the number of people released on parole – which typically ranged from 150-to-200 per month over the last three years, has fallen gradually to about 80 per month, Lawlor said.

“That is roughly equal to the bump in the prison population,” he added.

A review found that several parole reforms in the works since the legislature ordered them in 2008 have been implemented over the last year.

These changes include:

  • A requirement that the Board of Pardons and Paroles develop and use a complex, risk assessment tool for more closely evaluating every inmate under consideration for parole;
  • A more structured decision-making process for each parole application, including listing all findings in detailed, written reports;
  • And a new electronic filing system that provides the boards with much more data for consideration in each case, including police and sentencing reports.

“Obviously all of this is a good thing,” Lawlor said. “There is a lot more information available, and it’s a more methodical process. … But this is a new process that has slowed things down.”

It shouldn’t be a significant problem six months from now, Lawlor estimated, noting that the board has increased its focus on management and training.

“It seems like it’s just a question of getting back to the normal rhythm, the normal efficiency,” he said. “People are very focused on that at the moment.”

But there’s another challenge that could disrupt that focus, at least for a little while. 

In an effort to build bipartisan support for a sweeping gun control measure adopted this past spring, majority Democrats accepted a Republican proposal to place a new limit on sentencing-reducing credits.

Currently the state allows certain 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 new restriction adopted this spring states that regardless of how many credits an inmate earns, they cannot be used to reduce the sentence of certain violent offenders below the 85 percent mark.

Those convicted of murder have never been eligible for the credit program.

“These changes will almost certainly result in increased demand on the DOC’s (Department of Correction’s) existing prison bed capacity,” Lawlor’s office wrote in its last report.

Still, Lawlor said Tuesday he remains optimistic that the inmate parole process adjustments expected to be completed next year would be enough to offset this challenge, and ultimately pave the way for more reductions in the prison population in future years.

Connecticut’s prison population, which stood as low as 6,000 in the mid-1980s, rose steadily over the next two decades, due in part to tougher sentencing policies adopted in 1993 and 1994.

The Malloy administration closed most of the Gates Correctional Institution in East Lyme two years ago, 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.

Unions representing state correction officers and their supervisors have noted that Connecticut hasn’t expanded a prison since 2004 or opened a new one since 1995. They also argue that the system was designed to hold only about 17,000 inmates – and that was before the closures in 2011 – meaning some guards continue to deal with overcrowding problems.

Staff Writer Grace Merritt contributed to this article.

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