A new credit system launched in September that allows offenders to shorten their sentences by participating in re-entry programs could shrink prison populations by several hundred inmates this fiscal year, a key official in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration said this week.

But according to Michael Lawlor, who heads the administration’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, the real value of this program lies in its long-term ability to stem recidivism, and ultimately reduce crime and incarceration rates even more significantly over the next several years.

“The goal of this is simple: When you get out of jail, we want to make it less likely that you’re going to go back,” Lawlor, a former state representative and longtime co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee before leaving the legislature last winter to join the administration, said Thursday.

The administration rolled out the Risk Reduction Earned Credit system in September, modestly lessening sentences of offenders who have been participating in adult education, substance abuse recovery, counseling and other programs deemed necessary by Department of Correction officials to improve their chances of success upon release.

The program is not open to offenders convicted of murder or to those who receive a mandatory minimum sentence–typically imposed in connection with a violent crime.

Participants can earn up to five days off of their sentence for each month–up to 60 days per year–provided they engage in their individual re-entry programs, which are designed by correction officials. The time comes off the back end of a sentence, typically when offenders are on some form of supervised community release.

Though precise enrollment numbers in the program were not immediately available Friday, Lawlor’s office reported that 971 offenders in community settings were discharged from the correction system in September. That’s 432 offenders higher than the August total, 476 above the average for the prior three months, and 413 above the total for September 2010.

But that doesn’t automatically mean Connecticut can expect 400-plus extra offenders will leave the system each month for the rest of this fiscal year. The legislature gave the Correction Department considerable discretion to award credits retroactively at the start of the program for participation in re-entry programs prior to this fiscal year.

Also, because the sentence reductions are limited to just five days per month, many offenders won’t accrue many days before their sentences were set to expire under the previous system.

For example, someone sentenced to one year in prison for selling drugs already could be eligible for release to a supervised community setting after six months based on good behavior. So this person could earn no more than 30 days of credit time before moving from prison into supervised release.

If this hypothetical offender had finished a sentence in September due to risk reduction credits, he still would have left the system this fiscal year–in October–even without participating.

Lawlor said that while his office believes the cumulative effect of these credits could be to reduce the prison population by several hundred inmates before the fiscal year ends, the real value doesn’t lie in the short term.

“The potential is there for the prison population to be reduced significantly in the next two or three years,” Lawlor said. The credit program, coupled with a new house arrest plan for drunken driving offenders, anti-recidivism programs aimed at those on probation, and overall declining crime rates, could shrink the prison population by several thousand inmates in two or three years. “It’s almost impossible to predict with certainty what’s going to happen, but I believe the drop will be significantly more” than a few hundred prisoners.

Lawlor noted that the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division has achieved significant gains by promoting education, counseling and substance abuse programs and working with those sentenced to probation, dropping the recidivism rate among that group from 49 to 41 percent over the past five years.

Connecticut’s prison population, which hit a 10-year low in January when the overall incarcerated population fell to 17,746, stood at 17,762 in early October, the last monthly report from Lawlor’s office.

Correction officials also believe the credit system has the potential, working cooperatively with other programs, to combat recidivism over the long haul, DOC spokesman Brian Garnett said Friday.

“Even prior to this (program) it was clear that the bulk of inmates want to engage in something positive, … that will improve their opportunity to succeed when they are released from prison,” he said. “I think this will only enhance that.”

But the risk reduction credit system has its skeptics.

Minority Republicans in both the House and Senate opposed the system when the legislature enacted it in June.

Sen. John A. Kissel of Enfield, ranking GOP senator on the Judiciary Committee, said that while he strongly believes education and counseling can reduce recidivism, Republicans are concerned that the system gives considerable discretion to correction officials to decide which inmates can receive credits.

“I still believe the legislature abdicated its authority,” he said.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, added that while Democratic legislators and the administration made some accommodates to limit which offenders could receive credits, the statute still allows for some violent criminals — such as those who commit lesser sexual and aggravated assaults — to participate.

“It is smart, proper and good planning to offer an option to all non-violent criminals” to better prepare for success after serving their sentence, Cafero said. “But we took that to a whole new level.”

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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