State Justice System Needs Reform Now [Commentary]

September 19, 2007

We are all too familiar with the gruesome and frightening details of the Cheshire home invasion.  A quiet suburban home, broken into on an otherwise peaceful summer night.  A father brutally beaten.  A mother strangled to death.  Their daughters’ assaulted, raped and burned alive. 

The thought that this unspeakable tragedy could have happened to any of us has shaken our sense of security and our faith in our government’s ability to protect us.

The Petit home invasion has exposed Connecticut’s failure to keep career criminals behind bars.  In the wake of this tragedy, we learned that “burglary of a residence” is not considered a violent crime, a classification that would have required the Cheshire assailants to have served longer prison sentences.  We also recently learned that our persistent offender law – the very law intended to keep dangerous career criminals in jail and out of our neighborhoods – was not only rarely used, but is also unconstitutional as ruled last week by the state Supreme Court.

The message to the legislature is clear: strengthen Connecticut’s laws and parole processes pertaining to persistent dangerous offenders and do it now.

The people of Connecticut have also spoken on this issue.  Within weeks of the Petit tragedy, more than 40,000 people signed a petition supporting a real “three strikes and you’re out” law for Connecticut.  Hundreds more have written their legislators and newspapers demanding a persistent offender law that will impose severe mandatory minimum jail sentences for serious repeat criminals. 

So, why hasn’t anything been done? 

On the surface, the legislature even seems to be in agreement on most of the reforms that need to be made.   Senate Republican Leaders, myself included, have twice written the Democratic Senate President Don Williams and House Speaker Jim Amann to call for a special session to strengthen our persistent offender law, reclassify home invasion (burglary of a residence) as a violent crime, and enact a true “three strikes” law for Connecticut.  In press statements, the Democratic Chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, offered similar reforms.

So, why haven’t we voted on these important public safety measures?

Senate President Williams says legislative reforms can “wait until the next legislative session” which begins in February 2008.  Leadership of the Judiciary Committee claims “the issue needs more study” and they have planned a series of information hearings for the fall. 

But we have already studied this issue at length. Since 2000 the legislature has conducted 29 reports regarding prison overcrowding and prison statistics; 23 reports on probation, pardons, and reentry; and 17 reports regarding mandatory minimums and sentencing.  We don’t need more reports.  We don’t need more studies.  We need action.
The response from the Democratic Leadership is woefully inadequate and unacceptable.  Their rhetoric and procrastination on this issue is more likely an attempt to avoid a real debate about the majority party’s flawed criminal justice philosophy and opposition to mandatory minimum jail sentencing of any kind.  

On issues of crime and punishment, the priorities cannot always be focused on criminal rights; rehabilitation; early release programs; and lighter jail sentences.  The priority must always be public safety.  People of the state of Connecticut should not have to fear that repeat violent felons are roaming our neighborhoods in search of potential victims. 

While the General Assembly should aim to strike a balance among all of these competing priorities, it must always error on the side of public safety.  For too long, the policy has been to error on the side of criminal rights and rehabilitation.  We have a broken criminal justice system because of it.

To reform our broken system, we should take immediate action on the following reforms:

  1. Enact a Strong Three Strikes Law that eliminates judicial discretion and requires life imprisonment for a third serious felony conviction, keeping career criminals in jail and out of our neighborhoods.
  1. Reclassify Burglary of a Residence (Home Invasion) as a Violent Crime
    1. Force dangerous felons who commit this crime to serve 85% of their jail sentences before applying for parole (under current law, the majority of these criminals are released after serving only half of their sentences).
    2. Impose a mandatory minimum 5-year prison sentence on criminals convicted of burglary in the first or second degree.
  1. Strengthen Connecticut’s Persistent Offender Law by following the state Supreme Court’s recommendation to grant juries the power to determine enhanced sentences on criminals they deem to be dangerous persistent offenders.

  1. Reform the State’s Parole Process
    1. Transfer the Board of Parole from the Dept. of Corrections to the Dept. of Public Safety
    2. Increase membership on the Board of Parole
    3. Require transcripts and other information pertaining to a candidate for parole be provided to Board of Parole members at least three business days prior to the candidate’s hearing
    4. Require released offenders to report to their local police station to be photographed and documented within one week of their release
    5. Require more information on the court record at the time of sentencing
  1. Require Serious Criminals to Wear GPS Tracking Devices on their person at all times as a condition of their release.

Whether one agrees with the above or not, the debate and vote should take place now and not six months from now.  Why is there such a push by Democratic leaders to stifle the debate and postpone this issue?