Ongoing efforts to combat recidivism and treat nonviolent offenders in community settings should push Connecticut’s prison population under 18,000 and down to a five-year low, according to a new report from state policy analysts.

The inmate population during the first week of December averaged 18,187, according to the Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division within the Office of Policy and Management, falling for the third successive month.

But the latest number still stands marginally above the level the division originally projected for December 2010 nearly one year ago.

It also is nearly 2,200 inmates above the level state correction worker unions insist represents the prison system’s true capacity, though labor spokesmen praised the legislature for ordering steps that have begun to mitigate overcrowding issues.

“We are approaching levels that we haven’t seen since the beginning of Gov.  (M. Jodi) Rell’s administration,” OPM Undersecretary Brian Austin Jr., who leads agency’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, said Friday, adding there is an “excellent chance” Connecticut will continue to enjoy the steady, moderate decline it has witnessed for most of the past five years.

Though the prison population has increased steadily over the past two decades, particularly due to tougher sentencing policies enacted in 1993 and 1994, it peaked in February 2008 when 19,894 people were incarcerated.

But the population grew by nearly 1,000 inmates in just seven months after the July 2007 home invasion that led to the slaying of a Cheshire woman and her two daughters. Rell temporarily suspended administrative review, an abbreviated process for reviewing inmates up for parole. During the interim, the governor and legislature overhauled the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, ending administrative review and adding several full-time board members with specialized knowledge in criminal justice issues.

State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, longtime co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Gov.-elect Dan Malloy’s choice to succeed Austin when the new administration takes over next month, said the goal is to build on those population-reducing investments of recent years.

For example, recent efforts to expand funding for probation officers has allowed Connecticut to scale back incarcerations tied to probation violations – the single-most-common crime behind prison sentences, Lawlor said. If an officer has an overwhelming caseload and can’t monitor offenders as closely, he added, it only is a matter of time before the most “high maintenance” individuals violate their probation and wind up in jail.

Connecticut is one of just six states that hold unsentenced prisoners in correctional facilities, rather than in a separate county jails or comparable regional institutions.

But Lawlor also praised the Judicial Branch’s jail re-interview program, which re-examines the backgrounds of those who fail to make bond, for helping to reduce the unsentenced population. In many cases, he said, these cases involve nonviolent individuals in need of substance abuse treatment or mental health services – problems that can be addressed more cost-effectively in community-based settings, not in prison.

“We could definitely accomplish an even greater reduction by better managing the probation and the pre-trial population,” Lawlor added. “It’s simple: less crime, less spending. If you’re careful, you can accomplish both goals.”

But while the reduced inmate population is good news, the spokesman for the union representing more than 5,000 prison guards, probation and parole officers and other Department of Correction staff, Larry Dorman, said it’s important to remember that overcrowding still remains a concern in many facilities.

“Safety and security are always going to be a concern for our members, but we still feel that there’s probably 2,000 inmates over what we feel to be a normal level for the system,” Dorman said Friday.

Matt O’Connor, spokesman for the union that represents about 600 prison guard supervisors, noted in the 2009 retirement incentive program alone, the Correction Department lost 400 staff, most of whom were involved with inmate supervision. “We still believe in some areas were are critically understaffed,” he said.

Both Dorman and O’Connor added that their unions are hopeful that Malloy’s administration will be receptive to addressing longstanding concerns about staffing shortages.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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