(Hartford Courant editorial) Sen. Kissel Attempting to Strip Secrecy from Pardons Bill

May 28, 2013

Pardon Secrecy Proponents Should Heed Lesson Of Willie Horton

Shutting the public out of criminal proceedings ends up badly

May 24, 2013

The efforts of Democratic legislative leaders and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (also a Democrat) to keep pardon proceedings secret are corrosive to decent government.

Mr. Malloy and Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee justify this proposal embedded in Senate Bill 846 as way to protect the privacy of convicts who apply to be pardoned. But the proposal is dangerous; so much so that this drive toward secrecy calls to mind a notorious case that can be summarized in two words: Willie Horton.

Willie Horton is what you get when you lock out the public from criminal records and proceedings.

For those who have forgotten, Mr. Horton —whose full name is William R. Horton Jr. — is the first-degree murderer who became notorious during the 1988 presidential campaign. He got weekends off from prison during a secret government program that had its roots in protecting the privacy of prisoners. On the ninth weekend off, he didn’t go back to prison. Instead, he committed a variety of violent crimes until he was captured nine months later.

Mr. Horton’s actions became the subject of a race-baiting and inaccurate Republican campaign commercial that helped smear, then defeat, the Democratic candidate for president at the time, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Nonetheless, the Horton case is important to cite at this moment in Connecticut because of the corrosive nature of government secrecy. It shows how locking out the public — particularly regarding matters of criminal justice — can lead to disaster.

Secret Prison Furloughs

In 1973, Massachusetts Gov. Francis W. Sargent, a Republican, signed into law the Criminal Offender Records Information Act. CORI was designed to protect the privacy of prisoners by making it hard for the public to get information, either about individual inmates or their criminal records. It evolved into a way for the corrections system to have broad leeway in all sorts of actions that it could take under the guise of prisoner privacy.

One of these actions was to start a furlough program for even violent prisoners that would allow them unsupervised days off from prison. Officials began this program because it made it easier to manage prisoners and, most important, because the CORI act allowed them to do so in secret, without any pesky public hearings or the knowledge of taxpayers. Most prisoners did not commit crimes while off, but some did, and Mr. Horton was one of them.

No doubt, government officials here will argue that it’s a real stretch to use the specter of a murderer to slam their proposed law on keeping pardons secret. But it’s not clear that just the pardons will be secret. This bill could be a way for entire meetings of the Board of Pardons and Parole to be kept secret, not just pardon applications.

And it’s important to note that the CORI act in Massachusetts didn’t start with bad intentions. Neither does this effort in Connecticut. But combining government secrecy and criminal justice proceedings is toxic. Bad things happen when government outlaws public oversight.

Who Voted For Transparency

Right now, ranking Republican Sen. John A. Kissel and his Republican colleagues on the Judiciary Committee are the only ones who seem to understand this central fact. Sen. Kissel tried unsuccessfully to strip the secrecy provisions from the bill in the committee. Rep. Bob Godfrey of Danbury was the only Democrat to vote for Sen. Kissel’s proposal. The only members of the committee to vote against Senate Bill 846 in its entirety were Republicans. The vote tally is here: http://1.usa.gov/16TR4BF.

Sen. Kissel has proposed an amendment on the floor of the Senate to repeal the secrecy provisions in the bill. It’s a last-ditch effort to make this proposal worthy of the public that pays the salaries of Democrats doing everything possible to lock them out. Shame on the legislature if it doesn’t strip secrecy from this bill.