Just two days after signing a comprehensive criminal-justice bill, Gov. M. Jodi Rell said Sunday that she is ending her four-month ban on parole for violent criminals.
Rell instituted the ban in September, after a Connecticut career criminal who was out on parole stole a car at knifepoint in Hartford and was not captured until he was shot by New York City police in the Bronx.
That arrest came two months after the triple slayings of a 48-year-old mother and her two daughters in their Cheshire home. The deaths of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela, prompted the legislature to push for a series of reforms that included the classification of a new felony crime of home invasion for criminals who enter an occupied residence.
With those reforms signed into law Friday, Rell made the next move Sunday, ending a temporary parole ban that had helped boost the state's prison population to near an all-time high.
"I instituted the parole ban because security and public safety come first," Rell said. "Parole is a privilege, not a right, and those who do not comply with these tough new standards [including weekly urine tests for violent criminals out on parole] will find themselves back in prison."
The temporary ban had applied only to those whose crimes were violent. Nonviolent offenders have been released from prison in recent months under the normal procedures.
In a system that operates 18 prisons and jails, about 30,000 criminals enter and are released each year, officials said. Though the prison population literally changes daily, the population recently has been about 19,800 — up sharply from about 5,400 in 1985 in the days before the state built 12 new prisons.
Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, an East Haven Democrat who is co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee, said Sunday that he has no problem with lifting the parole ban as long as Rell is "convinced they can keep track of all these people."
Some 500 to 1,000 parole-eligible prisoners remained behind bars during the ban, he said, and now their cases will be reviewed by the parole board. The two career criminals who have been charged in the Cheshire slayings — Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky — were both out on parole when the crimes occurred on July 23. One of the reforms in the new law is to hire five full-time parole board members to bring enhanced scrutiny to the cases of those who are about to be released.
Even though Rell signed the bill, Lawlor cautioned that it takes time to interview and hire the new staff that is needed to monitor violent criminals.
"They haven't hired all the new parole officers. They don't have a new, full-time parole board yet," Lawlor said. "Even though we pass a bill that says things are supposed to happen, they don't always happen. If they let too many people out too quickly, then the governor is going to be accountable. ... We don't want them to speed it up. We don't want them to take shortcuts."
The parole ban was related directly to the case of 45-year-old James Biggs, who was shot by New York City police who said he had used a knife to threaten them. A career criminal and repeat parole violator who is also known as Jimmy Lee Biggs III, he was paroled in Connecticut on Aug. 30, 2007, for the third time in two years, officials said. On Sept. 20, a 65-year-old man was leaving a supermarket on the Silas Deane Highway in Wethersfield when Biggs asked him for a ride to downtown Hartford, police said. During the ride, Biggs waved a knife, ordered the man out of the car, and then drove away, according to police.
After Biggs fled to New York, police there spotted the Ford Taurus that had been reported stolen in Hartford. After Biggs allegedly threatened an officer with a 12-inch carving knife, the officer fired two shots, hitting Biggs in the thigh, but not mortally wounding him, police said.
"This guy clearly fell through the cracks," Lawlor said of Biggs. "Guys like this should be on GPS monitoring. Why weren't they? The system was overwhelmed."
In another change, the legislature called for a new comprehensive computer system that would connect police, parole officers, prosecutors, probation officers and other law enforcement agencies so they would have common information to help in making decisions on whether prisoners should be released or not.
Even though the Cheshire bill was passed in special session, the issue is not over. Rell has said that any prison improvements that are costly will be included in her new budget proposal that will be delivered to the General Assembly on Feb. 6. Rell had asked lawmakers to steer clear of spending money in the special session and instead to wait until her budget is presented. Still, legislators in special session approved spending an additional $2 million in the current fiscal year and another $17 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
"The legislature has asked: What does the system need?" Lawlor said. "You tell us what you need, and we'll give it to you."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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