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The Prison Pendulum: Cutting Costs Risky Without Investing In Parole Support

Robert Farr

May 15, 2011

In January 2008, the Connecticut legislature met in special session to toughen our criminal laws and lock up potentially violent offenders for longer periods of time. After the tragedy in Cheshire, cost was no object.

Now, just three years later, lawmakers are seeking to reduce the prison population because cost has become a major driver in criminal justice policy.

This is not the first time the criminal justice pendulum has swung rapidly from one extreme to the other. It's led to mistakes in the past. Let's hope they are not repeated this year.

Connecticut's prison population has increased rapidly in recent decades. In 1979, there were 3,500 inmates; by 2003, the number had surpassed 19,000. In the 1980s, officials saw the numbers rising and tried to do something. In 1988, to reduce the need for new prisons, they expanded a program called Supervised Home Release. By 1991, we had almost 6,000 inmates released from prison early under the program, many having served as little as 10 percent of their sentences, taken no corrective programs and having little supervision in the community. This created a revolving door that saw inmates released early, only to quickly return on new charges.

In response to the increase in crime rates and the failure of the home release program, the pendulum swung the other way. The legislature adopted tough truth-in-sentencing laws requiring inmates who committed violent crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences and nonviolent inmates to serve at least 50 percent of theirs. Home release and good-time credits were abolished. The prison population continued to climb.

If we get it right, it is possible to both reduce prison populations and reduce crime at the same time.

The average inmate in prison has committed multiple crimes and been incarcerated several times. A state study of recidivism has shown that 60 percent of inmates will return to prison within three years of release. But inmates released early by the Board of Pardons and Parole who successfully complete parole supervision in the community are one-third less likely to reoffend than inmates who are directly discharged into the community without supervision.

We need to better understand what causes inmates to commit crimes in the first place. I have reviewed more than 4,000 cases of inmates seeking to be released early on parole; some characteristics are typical of most inmates.

More than 80 percent of inmates dropped out of high school. More than 80 percent are the products of dysfunctional families with no father in their upbringing, with other family members involved in the criminal justice system, and with abuse of drugs and alcohol in the home. Inmates who commit domestic violence were typically exposed to domestic violence as children.

It is alarming to find that most of the male inmates have three or four children by three or four different women and have little or no relationship with those children, thus assuring us of a new generation of at-risk children and potential inmates.

Rebuilding viable families is the best long-term solution to our large prison population. But here and now we must deal with the more than 17,000 inmates presently in our prisons.

We need evidence-based programs that reduce the likelihood of reoffending. Historically, during tough budget times, programs in prisons are among the first cut. That's unfortunate because we know that education, prison industries, domestic violence programs, sex offender treatment and anger management reduce the likelihood of reoffending, as long as they are accompanied by re-entry programs within the community.

The parole board uses risk evaluation instruments to predict the likelihood of reoffending. It evaluates the program needs of offenders, considers the impact of the crime on the victim and the community, and requires inmates seeking parole to behave within the prisons. The board releases low-risk offenders at their earliest eligibility. It only releases high-risk offenders to parole after they have completed all necessary programs and have a plan that will help their re-entry into the community.

Parole is a model of how to make responsible release decisions. Although the budget is the priority, the state shouldn't allow the pendulum to swing back to a system of releasing inmates without evaluation of the risk to the community.

Robert Farr of West Hartford is a lawyer and former legislator. He served as chairman of the Board of Pardons and Parole from 2007 to 2011.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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