Sen. Kissel Defends State’s Victim Advocate []

September 27, 2012

Article as it appeared on

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz is fighting to keep her job after criticizing the early release of state prison inmates under a program backed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration.

Cruz and Republican state legislators who support her are questioning the timing of a new search for candidates for her position that officially began three weeks after she called for a halt to the prison release program on Aug. 1. She cited the case of a convicted robber who was released early under the program and murdered a convenience store owner in Meriden.

Officials in Malloy’s Democratic administration, however, have criticized Cruz’s job performance during the past several years, and the last evaluation of her office in 2010 deemed it ineffective and contained adjectives including ‘‘antagonistic,’’ ‘’combative’’ and ‘‘troubling.’’

Cruz, 42, a former prosecutor, defends her work and wonders whether Malloy wants to replace her with someone who is not so outspoken. Her office is responsible for guarding the constitutional rights of crime victims, evaluating state services to victims and recommending changes in policies and laws.

‘‘This office’s independence is crucial to the victims having a voice in the criminal justice system,’’ Cruz told The Associated Press this week.

A spokesman for Malloy would not say whether the governor wants to replace Cruz, whose first four-year term expired last April. The spokesman, David Bednarz, said the advisory committee for the victim advocate is only following state law on appointments.

Cruz said she tried to set up a meeting with administration officials to discuss her job before her term expired, but they never responded. She said she found out in mid-August that the advisory committee was about to begin meeting to look for candidates, and she wasn’t invited.

‘‘As soon as Ms. Cruz spoke up, the group in charge of posting for that particular job decided to post the job,’’ said state Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield. ‘‘Whether intended or not, it gives the appearance that if you criticize the administration that you’re in danger of losing your job.’’

The chairman of the advisory committee, Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s criminal justice adviser, said Wednesday that he expects the job to be posted in a few days. He said Cruz is welcome to apply.

Lawlor, a former lawmaker who helped create the victim advocate’s office in 1998, has been defending the prison early release program. He said violent criminals are actually staying in prison longer under the ‘‘risk reduction earned credit’’ program because of better risk assessment.

Lawlor criticized a presentation about the early release program Cruz gave last week to a group of lawmakers, calling it ‘‘incoherent.’’

Cruz told lawmakers that nearly 7,600 state inmates were freed under the program from September 2011 to June 2012, and they weren’t adequately supervised. The program, which began last year, also awards credits to inmates who take programs that don’t target the root cause of their criminal activity, Cruz said.

‘‘We are directly addressing a policy decision made by the administration that directly impacts victims,’’ Cruz told AP, adding that hundreds of victims have expressed concern about the program.

Lawlor said Cruz’s account of the program was inaccurate and made it appear that thousands of inmates were being released early into the streets without cause. He said fewer prisoners are being released each month this year, about 1,700, compared with previous years, and Cruz failed to mention the decreases.

In 2010, the victim advocate’s advisory committee said in an evaluation that the office was ineffective. The panel said the office was ‘‘antagonistic’’ and ‘‘combative’’ toward other agencies and believed wholesale policy changes were needed based on a single complaint and without adequate research.

The committee, which included a prosecutor, judge and leaders of victims’ groups, also had a mixed review of an investigative report the office did about a murder-suicide in Plymouth in 2007.

‘‘Although it is replete with spelling, punctuation, word usage and grammatical errors and … reflects negatively on the professionalism of the (office), it does contain some very valuable commentary,’’ the evaluation said.

Cruz found that Plymouth police and state prosecutors failed to take actions that may have prevented the killings. But the committee faulted Cruz’s office for saying police had a basis for conducting a warrantless search of a home, when that search would have been illegal.

‘‘It wasn’t based on facts,’’ Cruz said about the evaluation.

Cruz added that many members of the advisory committee represented agencies and organizations that she criticized or potentially could review.

Windham State’s Attorney Patricia Froehlich, who was chairwoman of the committee at the time, told the AP that she stands by the evaluation.