After dropping by nearly 4 percent in 2011, Connecticut’s prison population is on pace to dip below 17,000 inmates in early January after hitting an 11-year-low earlier this month, according to the state’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division.

And former state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, who has led the division for the past year, said Thursday that the inmate ranks should decline at a similar pace in 2012 as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration looks to close a third prison in two years.

The inmate count stood at 17,052 on Thursday, below the 17,412-inmate average recorded during the first week of December, and well below the 17,758-inmate average projected for this month in the administration’s annual forecast last February.

More importantly, Lawlor said, the current level all but guarantees that Connecticut’s prison population will open the year on Sunday with its lowest level since the 17,137-inmate mark recorded Jan. 1, 2001.

And given the success Connecticut has enjoyed with ongoing anti-recidivism programs, as well as a new intensive probation system, Lawlor said the count should fall below 17,000 at some point in January.

“The goal has not just been to figure out ways to get people out of prison,” Lawlor said. “The goal is to get them out of prison in a way so that they don’t come back.”

A spokesman for the Correction Department could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Connecticut’s prisons, in the mid-1980s, held as few as 6,000 inmates of all classifications. After that, the population rose steadily, nearly tripling over two decades, due in part to tougher sentencing policies adopted in 1993 and 1994. But Lawlor has said the jump also could be attributed to policy changes and new societal attitudes that led to increased reporting of certain crimes.

New investments in the mid-2000s in community-based programs, designed to help offenders re-integrate into society, slowed inmate growth slightly in the mid-2000s. But the population peaked at 19,984 in February 2008 — seven months after the Cheshire home invasion that claimed the lives of three people. Then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell responded by suspending one of the primary procedures for issuing paroles.

The Malloy administration has supported several policy changes to control both the inmate population, and prison costs, by trying to rehabilitate more nonviolent offenders in the community.

Malloy and the legislature adopted a new risk reduction credit program this year.

Starting in September certain types of low-level offenders have been able 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 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.

A second initiative allows courts to reconsider and lessen the sentence for certain low-level offenders after they have served the first three months of a prison term, provided those offenders have demonstrated good behavior and participate in all necessary treatment programs.

Further reductions

Lawlor said he thinks there is significant potential to continue making gradual reductions in the inmate population, adding that too many nonviolent offenders struggling with mental illness or drug addiction still are in prisons.

“Treating all of that runs into an unbelievable amount of money,” Lawlor said, adding that it not only could be done more cheaply outside of prison, but making this switch would enable Connecticut to share some of the cost with the federal government. The Medicaid program covers a wide variety of health care services for the poor and indigent, but does not cover treatment for inmates.

The administration closed most of the Gates Correctional Institution in East Lyme in June, though one annex building continues to house a few hundred offenders. A second facility, the Bergin Correctional Institution in Mansfield, closed in September. That prison typically held between 900 and 1,050 inmates.

The $40.5 billion, biennial budget adopted by the legislature and Malloy in June calls for the administration to close a third facility during the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2012. At the pace Connecticut’s prison population is shrinking, Lawlor said he thinks the administration will be able to close “at least” one facility.

The criminal justice division’s formal inmate population forecast for 2012 will be submitted to the legislature in mid-February.

The legislature approved a $695.2 million budget for the Correction Department this fiscal year, virtually unchanged from the $693.4 million the agency spent in 2010-11, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis. And the department faces a $50 million cut in its budget starting in 2012-13.

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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