House Gives Final Approval To Sentence-Reduction Bill
Jon Lender and Daniela Altimari
June 01, 2011
HARTFORD - Democrats in the House of Representatives outmuscled Republicans Tuesday to give final approval to a hotly contested bill that would give inmates sentence-reduction credits if they participate in self-improvement programs.
The 90-56 vote came after three hours of debate and was almost completely along party lines.
The bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who intends to sign it, a spokesman said.
Tuesday's House vote ended a weeklong drama that produced some of the 2011 legislative session's most fiery rhetoric, with Republicans noting that Malloy and majority legislative Democrats had crammed substantive policy changes into lengthy "budget-implementation" bills like this one, which are supposed to effect technical budget changes.
Before approving the bill, the House first amended it so that it would exclude prison inmates from earning sentence-reduction credits if they had been convicted of any one of six violent crimes ranging from murder to home invasion.
It is the same amendment that Senate Democrats approved on Friday after Republicans opposed the bill as too soft on inmates convicted of violent crimes.
House Minority Leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk and other Republican lawmakers tried unsuccessfully Tuesday, as they did last week, to amend the bill to expand the list of crimes that would make inmates ineligible for the sentence-reduction program.
Democrats supported the measure by saying that virtually all prisoners - except the most violent - get released at some point, and that it is better for society if they receive counseling and earn a high school equivalency diploma to prepare themselves for life outside prison walls.
"The offenders will be released ... unless they've got life without parole," said Rep. Toni Walker of New Haven. "Let's stop making this a game. We need to have a program that is going to make sure people are going to be better."
"If this is about being 'soft on crime,' I say 'baloney,' " said House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. "This is about being smart on crime."
Sharkey also said the wisdom of the program has been explained by state Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone, who was appointed by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and has been retained as commissioner by Malloy. Sharkey quoted Arnone as saying last week that if a prisoner - say, a serious drunken-driving offender - has two years to serve, and is asked to participate in an alcohol rehabilitation program, he might refuse because it won't affect his sentence either way; he might think, why make the effort of going into the program if he can do nothing and get out of jail at the same time?
Democrats sent e-mails to reporters Tuesday with a quote from Cafero in a newspaper article in March, supporting the sentence-reduction program. "State House Republican Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, Jr., says he's for the plan and isn't worried about flak from anti-crime crusaders," the Hartford Advocate article said. It went on: "I'm very much in favor of it,' he says, with the condition that any early release for inmates be strictly tied to their accomplishing something concrete while in prison."
House Republican spokesman Pat O'Neil said Cafero was talking about a proposal that only would have reduced nonviolent offenders' sentences.
DEMOCRATS ACCUSED OF 'EMASCULATING' ELECTION WATCHDOG
The Republicans' growing complaints about Democrats ramming through policy changes in budget-implementation bills grew louder as day turned into night at the House.
On Tuesday night, Democrats easily overcame GOP opposition in a 91-54 vote to approve still another wide-ranging budget-implementation bill.
This one included provisions for use of "ignition interlocks" by drunken-driving offenders; to create the Office of Government Accountability to absorb various state "watchdog" agencies, including the best-known three that handle elections enforcement, public officials' ethics and freedom of information; merging state economic development agencies; and reorganizing the administration of higher education. The bill now goes to the Senate.
Republicans focused their complaints on a section of the bill on which no public hearing was ever held - a provision to decrease the length of terms for members of the State Elections Enforcement Commission from the present five years to three years, and to bar any commission member from being reappointed to consecutive terms on the board.
The provision was a surprise to many, including Anthony Castagno, a Democratic member of the elections enforcement agency who was appointed to his seat by House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden.
"I am disappointed that the legislature - and particularly legislative leadership - are using the state's budget problems as justification for gutting the SEEC," Castagno wrote to Donovan.
Castagno said the decrease of terms to three years, with no consecutive terms for members, is "essentially emasculating the agency" because it gives too much influence to the permanent, paid staff of the agency and not enough to the citizens who are supposed to oversee the operation.
When a Democratic legislative committee co-chairman, Rep. Russ Morin of Wethersfield, was answering questions about the proposal before the vote, Republican Rep. Themis Klarides of Derby asked where the provision cutting the commission members' terms had come from, because there had been no hearing at which the public or commission members could give their views.
"It was a governor's bill ... I believe that there were discussions with the House and Senate leadership," Morin said. Klarides said he must mean Democratic legislative leaders, because Republicans weren't included. Morin replied that "I can't say for sure" because "I don't know that I was necessarily in that room."
"That's pretty sad," Cafero told reporters later, "when a man [Morin] brings out a provision on the floor of the House, that does not have public hearing, that substantially and dramatically changes a key provision in our government" - and is unable to explain the "rationale" behind it.
By the end of the night, no Democrat could say whose idea it was to change the terms of elections commission members. Even Donovan, the top House Democrat, said, "I wasn't in the room when people talked about that." He said the five-year terms "seemed long to some" and the reduced term was similar to those of members of other commissions. "I think that you're missing the main point, which is to keep the agencies independent and yet consolidate" them.
HEALTH INSURANCE EXCHANGE
The Senate approved a bill on Tuesday that would create a quasi-public agency to serve as a clearinghouse for people seeking to buy health insurance. The agency, called a health insurance exchange, would allow uninsured individuals and businesses to compare health insurance options and decide which is best for them.
The federal health care overhaul signed into law by President Barack Obama last year proposes establishing such agencies in all 50 states by 2014. Connecticut has received nearly $1 million to lay the groundwork for the plan.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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