Senate OKs Reforms In Wake Of Cheshire; Both Houses Reject Three-Strikes Law
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief
January 23, 2008
Six months after the triple slaying in Cheshire, the state House of Representatives approved comprehensive reforms to the state's criminal laws early this morning, including a new crime of "home invasion'' for anyone who breaks into an occupied home.
Lawmakers had struggled over the wording for the new crime in recent days, but Democrats who control the legislature eventually agreed Tuesday to approve the tougher version that had been pushed by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Home invasion, such as the one that occurred in Cheshire, would now be a Class A felony that guarantees a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of 25 years. The act would now be considered a violent crime -- meaning those convicted would be required to serve 85 percent of their sentences.
The overall bill was approved 36 to 0 in the state Senate on Tuesday before being approved by 126 to 12 in the House at about 2:40 a.m. Wednesday.
Shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday, lawmakers voted 89-49 to reject an amendment by Rep. William R. Dyson of New Haven to abolish the death penalty.
The most contentious issue of the one-day special session was a sharp disagreement over whether to enact a "three-strikes'' law that would carry an automatic sentence of life in prison for criminals who commit three violent felonies. After an impassioned debate, Democrats rejected a Republican-sponsored three-strikes amendment by a 21-15 vote; three moderate Democrats joined with Republicans to support the automatic life sentence. Shortly after 11 p.m., the House also rejected the amendment, 91-48, on largely a party-line vote, although eight Democrats broke with their party.
The three-strikes debate laid bare issues of politics, race, crime, civil liberties and public safety in a year when the entire legislature is up for re-election. Republicans said the proposed law was worth it even if it saved only one life, but Democrats ripped the concept as an overly simplistic, bumper-sticker motto in an election year.
"It appears to be tough on crime, but it's not a smart amendment,'' said Sen. Edward Meyer, a Guilford Democrat who is a former prosecutor. "This is a populist amendment. It is very difficult to vote against it. ... This would be a travesty and has been a travesty in other parts of the United States where it has been enacted.''
But Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Fairfieldsaid he did not know if Republicans would use the three-strikes amendment against Democrats during this fall's political campaigns.
"This wasn't about the November '08 elections,'' McKinney said. "In the nine years I've been here, I have not seen a vote on an amendment swing an election.''
Despite the length of the debate -- about 361/27 hours, one of the longest Senate debates in recent years -- Republicans and Democrats gathered together in a joint press conference to show their unity on the overall bill.
Rell, too, hailed the passage of the 43-page bill that was crafted over the course of the past several months.
"Violent criminals have no place in our state -- except inside a prison cell,'' Rell said. "A tough home-invasion law is the linchpin of our real reform. Our reforms will make our state safer, with new laws and tougher penalties that will get criminals off the streets and behind bars.''
The bill also calls for creating full-time positions on the state parole board and improving the state's antiquated computers in the criminal justice system -- two issues that came to light following the Cheshire crimes.
Lawmakers were reacting to the July 23 killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, during a break-in and arson at their suburban home. Two longtime criminals who were out on parole at the time -- Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky -- could face the death penalty after being charged with six counts of capital felony in the homicides.
Tuesday's Senate vote was the first of a two-step process. More expensive and controversial ideas, such as whether to build more prisons, will be debated during the regular session that starts Feb. 6.
The overall reforms are designed to prevent similar tragedies from happening.
"We can never correct the pain and suffering, but what we can do is ensure the process does work -- and look forward,'' said Sen. Joseph Crisco, a veteran Democrat from Woodbridge.
While the senators emphasized their bipartisan efforts to be tough on crime, the debate on "three strikes'' showed a largely partisan divide on an issue that may be debated again during the regular session. Sen. Sam Caligiuri, a Waterbury Republican who has pushed for a three-strikes law for nearly six months, delivered an impassioned speech that lasted nearly 15 minutes as he called for a strengthening of the law.
Caligiuri asked his colleagues how they could justify the current law that a person who commits three rapes might not be sentenced to life in prison.
"Why? How can you do it?'' he asked. "I can't.''
He added, "The notion that three strikes ties the hands of prosecutors is absurd and inaccurate.''
But Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams of Brooklyn, the highest-ranking senator, said the better option is the Democratic proposal to strengthen the second strike, rather than taking away discretion from judges on the third. He added that the two criminals in the Cheshire case did not have two strikes against them for violent felonies and would not have been eligible for imprisonment under the three strikes proposal.
"A three-strikes law is a Republican re-election campaign ploy to say that Republicans are tough on crime and Democrats aren't,'' said Frank O'Gorman, a spokesman for People of Faith, one of 30 organizations that joined to oppose the three-strikes amendment.
Debate in the House started at 7:30 p.m. and lasted past 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. Reps. Gail Hamm of East Hampton, Jeffrey Berger of Waterbury, John "Corky'' Mazurek of Wolcott and James O'Rourke of Cromwell were among the House Democrats who broke with their party members and voted with the Republicans on the three-strikes amendment.
Rep. Steven Mikutel, a veteran Griswold Democrat, also supported a three-strikes law. "It is effective,'' he said on the House floor. "It does reduce violent crime.''
Democrats immediately sent the bill to the governor this morning for her signature.
The bill also calls for:
•Expanding global positioning system monitoring of 300 more criminals out on parole and believed to be the most likely to commit more crimes. The state would have to hire 10 new parole officers to monitor the parolees.
•Providing more residential treatment beds for sex offenders.
•Creating an automated system to notify victims of court hearings and make it easier to allow state agencies to share information about victims.
•Requiring a state-of-the-art computer system.
•Adding a forensic psychologist and two victim advocates to work full-time for the parole board.
•Providing a video link between each prison and the parole board, costing about $250,000 overall, for parole hearings.
•Requiring the courts to provide often-secret juvenile and youthful-offender records to the parole board and Department of Correction.
"The key change is they're adopting the tough home-invasion language the governor wanted and proposed,'' said Christopher Cooper, Rell's spokesman. "The bill embodies what her proposal was -- with the notable exception of three strikes.''
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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