Parolees will be the first set free under new release program [Manchester Journal Inquirer]

August 2, 2011

By ending the sentences of parolees and halfway house residents, I thinks the state is setting bad policy. Read my comments in this article:

Article as it appeared in the Manchester Journal Inquirer on July 28, 2011

Parolees and those in halfway houses will be the first to be set free or see their sentences reduced significantly in October under the early release policy being drafted by the state’s Correction Department, officials said.

“They’re going to start by identifying people who are already out on parole,” said Michael P. Lawlor, director of the criminal justice policy division of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget office.

That will free up parole officers and allow certain inmates in prison to have their sentences shortened and be moved onto parole, he said.

But by ending the sentences of parolees and halfway house residents first, one area lawmaker thinks the state is setting bad policy.

A convict scheduled for a parole of several months would see it eliminated almost instantly, said Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield.

“You want at least a period of time in the community where an offender gets his or her sea legs,” Kissel said.

Details of the plan are outlined in a policy being drafted by the Correction Department.

It will apply the controversial law that allows prison inmates to shorten their sentences by taking classes, volunteering, or enrolling in other programs.

A draft of the policy was obtained by the Journal Inquirer through a freedom-of-information request.

Inmates could earn up to five days per month off their sentences through “risk reduction earned credits.” And the time off could be granted retroactively to April 2006. That means inmates could be eligible to shave up to 330 days — nearly one year — off their sentences when the policy takes effect in October.

The law was proposed by Malloy, a Democrat. Supporters say it will reduce recidivism — when convicts commit crimes after being released from prison — because the classes and other programs are shown to reduce that risk.

Opponents argued to limit the shortened sentences to nonviolent criminals, and questioned a part in the law that awards the time off retroactively.

Kissel is the top Republican senator on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. He supported an early version of the measure at the committee level, but opposed the bill when it came to a vote in the Senate.

Nowhere in the debate was it discussed that the plan would apply to parolees and others who are serving sentences outside of prison, he said.

And cutting short parole time or other transition time for convicts just released from prison could prove dangerous, Kissel said.

“We’re more successful when we have intense supervision during that period where the offender is in the community, to make sure that they have those supports so that they are successful in re-entry,” he said.

Kissel also questions the retroactive nature of the policy, saying it’s aimed at saving money by quickly reducing the number of inmates in the state’s prisons.

“I don’t know how anybody can say this is not meant to achieve cost savings when it’s five years retroactive,” he said.

That’s a position that prison guards have taken. The state is moving too quickly in releasing inmates and closing prisons to save money, they say.

“We are always concerned about savings trumping safety,” said Larry Dorman, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 4, which represents correction officers.

Prison guards also are concerned that the law and the policy put too much control in the hands of the Correction Department, Dorman said. They want more input.

Lawlor, who oversees criminal justice policy for Malloy, said the cost savings argument is wrong.

“One misrepresentation that is out there is that this is somehow geared toward closing prisons,” he said. His department issues projections of how many inmates are in the beds. The early release program will have no significant effect on the prison population, other than over time because of the lower recidivism rates, he said.

As for Kissel’s concerns about paroles being cut short, Lawlor said every case will be handled on an individual basis.

“It would be crazy to let somebody out so that they have no parole at the end of their sentence,” Lawlor said.

The policy is on hold until at least October while state officials update their computer system to track the credits and identify which inmates are eligible for shortened sentences, correction Commissioner Leo C. Arnone said.

They’re also still finalizing the policy. The copy obtained by the JI includes notes in the text. And at one point the policy contradicts itself: Credits can’t be restored after they’re taken away for bad behavior, it says. Another section on the same page spells out the process by which inmates can appeal to have them restored.

As for the program’s scope, Arnone described it as moderate in comparison to other states. He pointed to Texas, where inmates can get up to 1.2 days off their sentences for each day they serve with good behavior.

“There are states out there that people think are the conservative bastions of corrections, and they’re letting people out in droves,” Arnone said. “We’re not doing that.”