Amended inmate early-release bill passes House

The state House of Representatives put an end Tuesday afternoon to the running partisan debate over allowing inmates to earn credits for early release, sending a message that would create such a system to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk.

The Democrat-controlled House voted 90-56, largely along party lines, to approve the measure following more than three house of debate. The cleared the Senate in a similarly partisan vote on Friday after more than seven hours of discussion.

Malloy, also a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill, given that the director of his Criminal Policy and Planning Division, Michael P. Lawlor, has lobbied strongly for it, arguing it would be an effective tool at enhancing rehabilitation and fighting recidivism.

“If this is a question of being soft on crime, I say, ‘Baloney,'” said House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. “It means we are being smart on crime.”

Most inmates could have up to five days per month removed from their sentence, at the discretion of the Department of Correction commissioner, if they participate in education, counseling or other programs designed to help re-integrate them successfully into society upon release. Inmates could lose earned credits if they behave poorly.

Republican lawmakers have argued that this system, which is patterned after similar programs in 45 other states, could allow many inmates guilty of violent crimes to have their sentences significantly reduced.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, said the state already offers re-entry programs for inmates and shouldn’t have to reduce sentences to boost participation. “I guess for some it’s just not good enough,” he said. “We already pay for these programs. We don’t have to bribe them.”

One controversial provision in the legislation would allow the correction commissioner to consider positive steps taken by inmates dating back to 2006 to reduce their sentences now. GOP lawmakers charged this provision in particular was geared toward reducing prison populations and saving dollars, rather than about encouraging inmates in the future to prepare for their return to society.

Democrats did place two restrictions on the program:

One would prohibit offenders convicted of six of the worst crimes from earning any early release credits. Those offenses are: murder, felony murder, arson murder, capital murder, aggravated sexual assault and home invasion.

The second limits sentence reductions for offenders convicted of one or more of the 64 violent crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences under state law.