Suzio takes aim – again – at sentencing reduction rules. Is he right?

Clarice Silber / CTMirror.org

State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, criticizes the Risk Reduction Earned Credit system during a press conference on Tuesday

A tough-on-crime state senator up for re-election in November on Tuesday issued one of his hallmark rebukes of a key part of the outgoing governor’s criminal justice reform legacy, the fate of which will be determined by the next legislature and administration.

With familiar stagecraft, Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, attacked the Malloy administration’s early release rules, and called on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to immediately suspend the rules for violent felons and order an investigation into what he called its failure.

The early release rules are among a set of criminal justice reforms Malloy has pushed during his nearly eight years in office, broadly dubbed the “Second Chance Society.”

“I would call on Gov. Malloy to admit that he made a big mistake with this law, and men, women, and children are paying for it with their own lives and their own safety, and their own wellbeing,” Suzio said.

Leigh Appleby, a spokesperson for the Malloy administration, shot back, “Len Suzio’s credibility is dropping as quickly as Connecticut’s crime rate.”

There’s a philosophical divide, to be sure, but there’s also a factual divide, so let’s take a step back and look at who’s claiming what, what we know, and what we don’t.

What’s the debate?

Critics of the early release system, called Risk Reduction Earned Credit, or RREC — say it’s a “failure.”

The RREC system is aimed at encouraging good behavior among offenders. It allows inmates to earn a maximum of five days a month off their sentence. Prisoners convicted of some of the most violent crimes are barred from earning credits.

Those in maximum-security facilities can receive up to three credits a month and the system allows inmates to earn an increased number of credits as they progress to lower-security prisons. Offenders can reduce their security risk level by engaging in programming and displaying positive behavior.

Did Malloy start letting people out of prison early?

No. The idea of prisoners serving less than 100 percent of their original sentence is not new. Under previous administrations in Connecticut, inmates serving long sentences could earn up to 15 days credit every month.

What’s the case against RREC?

Critics have pointed to the number of specific violent crimes committed by people who get out of prison prior to serving their full sentence behind bars.

On Tuesday, Suzio said RREC is a catastrophic failure and that “the only time [inmates] behavior is really affected is when they are in prison because there’s immediate direct consequences.”

People do indeed get out of prison only to go on and commit new, violent crimes and wind up back in prison. That’s called recidivism.

Suzio counted more than 14,000 crimes he called violent, but also included “hardcore” drug crimes. His count includes all inmates released with any RREC credits since the start of the program in 2011 through the most recent data he has obtained.

But a more typical way to compute recidivism is one that allows you to compare it to the past, using a fixed duration and a cohort of inmates all released at the same time. By Suzio’s definition, the 14,000 number will only ever increase as more years pass.

But Suzio by his own admission has done nothing to show recidivism is worse now under RREC than it was before, and in fact there’s evidence the opposite is true. Recidivism has decreased steadily over a time period that included the roll-out of RREC.

Suzio dismissed those improvements as “irrelevant” because he said no matter the rates, they’re still too high.

“Every single one of those crimes is living proof that a criminal who participated in a program designed to change their behavior failed,” Suzio said. “The criminal did not change his behavior, he returned to a life of violent crime.”

Where do the gubernatorial candidates stand?

The midterm election will likely serve as an indicator for whether state officials will continue to focus on forging criminal justice reforms. The gubernatorial candidates have only lightly touched on their support or disapproval of Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” initiatives.

Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski has said he would reverse some of Malloy’s criminal justice policies, including scrapping the RREC system.

“In my conversations with local police chiefs, it has become clear to me that Gov. Malloy’s policies are not in the best interest of the state,” Stefanowski said in a statement. “His efforts to change the qualifications for being prosecuted as adults for serious crimes has also wreaked havoc on many of our communities.”

Democratic nominee Ned Lamont has stated his broad support for Malloy’s initiatives and his intent to build off of reforms that will leave fewer people behind bars.

“I will invest in job training, education, and programs that give everyone in our state a true first chance to build a successful life, and emphasize successful reentry programs so that formerly incarcerated people can reach their full potential and contribute to our society and our economy,” Lamont said in a statement.

Is RREC ‘softer’ on crime?

Suzio used an example of a criminal who got out of prison after having shaved time off his sentence with RREC credits, only to commit a murder.

Frankie Resto, he told reporters, “appeared before the parole board at least twice … maybe a third time, and he was denied parole because of his conduct in prison. As soon as the early release program was implemented, they released him.”

But it’s not as if people served 100 percent of their sentence in prison prior to RREC. In fact, while Resto’s sentence was reduced, state officials argue he was kept in jail longer than he might have been prior to the RREC program.

Resto served 93 percent of his sentence in prison before being released in 2012, according to a state analysis. That’s more than most inmates convicted of the same crime and released in 2008, prior to when RREC was enacted, according to an analysis by the state. One inmate released in 2008 served as little as 59 percent of his sentence.

The state hasn’t done any analysis extending that approach to all violent crimes, but that would illuminate this topic.

Without that evidence, the Malloy administration has asserted that violent inmates serve more of their prison sentence than prior to RREC, as in the Resto case, but we haven’t seen the proof.

Are we less safe now than before RREC?

Well, crime rates have been going down for decades, nationally and in Connecticut, and that hasn’t changed in the years since RREC was created.

Meanwhile there is evidence we are more safe than we have been in the past.

While recidivism rates have ticked down a bit, that’s just one part of how “safe” we are. Overall, crime rates have fallen rather dramatically in Connecticut in the past few years, as part of the continuation of decades of decline nationwide. Connecticut has seen one of the sharpest declines in violent crime in the country, according to an OPM analysis of recent FBI data.

Now, it’s important to note that we can’t attribute these improvements to RREC or any other part of the governor’s second chance society – it’s just evidence that things aren’t getting worse.

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