'This Is A Scary Situation For The People Of The State' — Sen. Kissel
By AMANDA FALCONE
September 18, 2012
HARTFORD —— Republicans said they held an informational hearing Tuesday because they were looking for better information about a program that lets convicted criminals earn credits toward early release from prison.
Democrats called the hearing a publicity stunt — during the height of campaign season.
"That's why we aren't there," said Michael Lawlor, the former chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee, who now is undersecretary for criminal justice in the state Office of Policy and Management.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield of New Haven was the only Democrat who participated in the hearing. Republicans said they invited representatives of state agencies and their Democratic colleagues but most chose not to attend.
"Sometimes public safety demands leadership whether we are in session or not," said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, expressing his frustration with Democratic leadership.
Tuesday's hearing included a lengthy presentation by Michelle Cruz, the state's victim advocate. After Cruz rattled off several examples of criminals who were released early and then arrested for new offenses or for violating probation, Republican lawmakers said they were worried.
"This is a scary situation for the people of the state of Connecticut," Kissel said.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Cruz's presentation highlighted concerns people have about the program, approved by the General Assembly in 2011.
"The facts you have given us go beyond the policy and the politics of early release," he told Cruz.
The early-release program received considerable attention this summer after a convenience store clerk in Meriden was shot and killed during a robbery in June. Frankie Resto, who had been serving time for a 2006 robbery conviction, earned 199 days of credit toward early release and got out of prison in April. Two months later, he was accused of killing the clerk.
When released, Resto was not given a sponsor, had no parole supervision, and was not placed in a halfway house, Cruz said. He had violated his probation four times and absconded to New York before he was arrested for murder, she said.
In August, Lawlor said that Resto had actually served 91 percent of the original prison sentence he was given for the 2006 robbery conviction. He said that the 199 days of credit that Resto had earned were "a factor" in his release, but he added that Resto had been eligible for release after completing 85 percent of his sentence in any case.
In the past, Lawlor said Resto would have automatically gotten out after completing the 85 percent of his sentence, but because of new laws, he had been held until April because he was evaluated and "identified as a high-risk inmate."
In her presentation, Cruz said 7,589 inmates were released as a result of the early-release program between Sept. 1, 2011, and June 29. The Department of Correction is reporting that 773 of those inmates were re-incarcerated for new offenses or violating probation, she said.
The Department of Correction's statistics aren't looking at the whole picture because it is only tracking inmates' rate of recidivism if the inmate has been re-incarcerated, Cruz said. Recidivism rates should also include those who have been arrested for new criminal offenses but who have not been re-incarcerated, she said, adding that she believes the early-release program is not changing behavior.
Cruz said she has three immediate concerns regarding the early-release program. The credits can be applied retroactively, and there is an inability for state agencies to adequately manage, supervise and monitor the caseloads, she said. Cruz also said credit is awarded for programs or behaviors that do not target the root cause of an inmate's criminal activity.
Cruz said several crime victims have approached her upon learning of the early-release program, expressing concern because they thought a criminal would serve their entire sentence.
"Almost all of them felt betrayed," Cruz said. "They feel vulnerable and don't trust the system. They lost faith in the system."
Lawlor said the point of the system is to reduce crime and recidivism, and it is doing just that. Connecticut is using criminal justice practices that have been successfully applied in other states, he said.
Lawlor said he has talked to several Republicans about the early-release program and is not refusing to explain anything. By staging the hearing, Republicans showed that they are not interested in a serious public policy discussion, he said.
"They're interested in playing cheap politics," Lawlor said. "If they were interested in a serious discussion, they'd know that fewer people are getting out of prison on average today than at almost any other point since 2005."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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