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Keep Tabs On Parolees

By DON NOEL

November 27, 2007

Almost everyone sent to prison gets out.

A few don't, or arguably shouldn't. But the fact is that most convicted felons sooner or later re-enter society.

How they re-enter should be a significant part of the General Assembly's dialogue that begins at a Judiciary Committee hearing at 1 p.m. today in the Legislative Office Building. Cold turkey, unfettered? Or a graduated, monitored return?

A monitored return is the standard in most of the world. In our federal system it's called "supervised release," explicitly descriptive. In Connecticut, it's called "parole," from the French for giving one's word (to stay out of trouble).

The goal either way is to require that felons stay in touch with someone a parole officer who will see that they keep their word, or send them back behind bars if they don't. Halfway houses, where some newly released inmates live while seeking jobs and acclimating to a working society, can be a useful part of that process.

Unhappily, when states cut budgets, it's all too common to reduce the number of those supervisors and halfway houses. And we get what we pay for.

So the first question legislators should ask is whether they've spent enough on supervision. A returning felon who knows that no one is watching is more likely to return to a life of crime than one who meets often with a parole supervisor. If we make it all but inevitable that someone who fails to toe the line will be sent back to prison, the odds of successful re-entry improve.

The alternative to supervised release is to require that felons spend their full punitive term behind bars, and then set them off on their own, without oversight. The perils of that approach should be evident.

Ordering a halt to all parole releases, as Gov. M. Jodi Rell has done, is probably an unconstitutional abrogation of due process. Most sentences are the result of plea-bargaining; the prospect of parole is part of a bargain sanctioned by the legislative branch and determined by the judicial branch. Can the executive branch unilaterally break those bargains? I suspect not.

More important than the legal issue may be the pragmatic question: Is it productive to make felons spend their entire sentences behind bars, and then release them cold turkey with no supervision? It's hard to imagine an argument for that approach not because it's Draconian, but because it won't work.

Should some violent offenders be required to spend more of their sentences behind bars? Of course, and Connecticut already does that. Violent offenders aren't eligible for parole until they've spent 85 percent of their sentences in prison; others are eligible after spending 50 percent of their time behind bars. If the net incarceration seems too short to legislators or judges, the terms can be increased but a period of supervised release should be kept.

Should the 85 percent threshold apply to domestic intrusions? After the Cheshire murders, that may seem an easy decision. But it should be a nuanced decision: Armed intrusion? An unarmed cat burglar? Breaking and entering when no one is home? Those are important differences. Should we mandate a longer time in prison for some other crimes? Certainly worth a look.

Should those who repeatedly resume lives of crime after prison be subject to longer incarceration? Of course, and the legislature years ago adopted legislation to define such "career criminals." Do prosecutors and judges sometimes not impose those sanctions in reaching plea-bargain convictions? Probably. Should we hold the judicial system accountable for such failings? You bet.

Should we adopt tougher "three-strikes" laws that preclude judicial discretion? That's tempting, but probably unwise. We're hiring judges, not automatons, and if legislators feel they're too lax, they needn't vote for their reappointment.

The other element of the parole equation is that prisons are enormously expensive, an average of $50,000 a year for each prisoner. We could provide one-on-one parole supervision of every released felon for less than that! More realistically, we could reduce parole officers' caseloads and almost surely reduce recidivism at a fraction of the cost of keeping people in prison for extended terms.

We could also free up that expensive prison space by sentencing minor drug offenders the largest single group now imprisoned to community correction (and, again, spending enough for real supervision). But that's a topic for another day.

Don Noel is chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. The views expressed here are his own.

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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