By SEAN O' LEARY, Hartford Business Journal Staff Writer
January 14, 2008
It’s not easy to lobby lawmakers on behalf of prisoners, especially when the public is still reeling from the horrific crimes that took place in Cheshire this past summer.
But that’s exactly what lobbyist Betty Gallo is doing on behalf of her clients — the American Civil Liberties Union, A Better Way Foundation and the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The groups are concerned that lawmakers are rushing to make decisions in the wake of tragedy, which will affect how reforms are established.
In particular, A Better Way Foundation has been at the forefront of the issue. The foundation exists as a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to shifting from a drug policy that often results in incarceration to promoting public health and treatment.
Lorenzo James, executive director for A Better Way, said the organization sprang into action by coordinating a coalition of residents who let legislators and state officials know how families are being affected by the parole ban established by Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Rell suspended parole for all inmates currently serving time for violent offenses in September. She reasoned that the state needed to find a better way to determine who poses risks to the public if released.
The groups represented by Gallo oppose the ban.
The nonprofit then established the Clean Slate Committee, with chapters set up in towns from New Haven to Glastonbury. Meetings have been set up with Rell’s legal counsel and Department of Corrections Commissioner Theresa Lantz, said committee co-chairman David Samuels.
“We wanted to give a chance to people whose voices haven’t been heard,” Samuels said. “It serves as a counter to the governor’s task force because that body has just been looking at law enforcement.”
With such a high-profile case serving as a catalyst for the reform, Samuels is keenly aware of the obstacles that those in favor of prisoners’ rights have to overcome.
“We’re looking for a system that looks at reintegration and supports the formerly incarcerated instead of just keeping them in jail,” he said. “The question that needs to be asked is why are these people re-offending? What kind of system do we want? Is it a system where we just warehouse people for so many years and release?”
In the Cheshire case, Samuels said the two men accused of murder were only paroled because “the parole board didn’t receive the sentencing report” and that this fact “has really been swept under the rug.”
The response from state officials, according to Samuels, has been to punish all parolees.
In addition to the standard lobbying of legislators and officials, A Better Way and the Clean Slate Committee are reaching out to the community to, in turn, sway their own representatives.
However, it will be a tough sell as the parole debate evolves.
Last week, Rell and Democratic legislative leaders released their recommendations for criminal justice reform. Later this month, the General Assembly is expected to convene a special session on the matter.
Both Republicans and Democrats appear to be in agreement on some preliminary recommendations, including the creation of a full-time Board of Pardons and the establishment of a new “home invasion” crime category.
Rell is endorsing changes to the penal codes, such as a mandatory minimum of five years for burglaries committed at night or with a firearm and tougher penalties for repeat offenders that could create a three-strikes law.
With so much focus, and rightly so, on the victims in the Cheshire case, it could be easily construed that everyone is for keeping criminals behind bars as long as possible.
But the old adage, there are two sides to every story, holds true here.