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Hartford - Connecticut will become the latest state to allow prison inmates to earn behavior and rehabilitation credits good for an earlier release as part of a bill that cleared the state House of Representatives Tuesday.
The "risk reduction credits" program was tucked into the first of what will be about a half dozen bills to implement parts of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's new biennial budget.
The bill passed 90-56 with three Democrats, including Rep. Steve Mikutel of Griswold, joining with Republicans to oppose it. The bill now goes to the governor's desk.
Another provision allows repeat drunken drivers to get their licenses back sooner and serve their sentences at home rather than in prison if they install a breathalyzer transmission lock on their vehicle.
First- and second-time drunken drivers currently face a one-year license suspension. The bill shortens their suspension to 45 days but requires the installation of an interlock device. The Department of Correction can then place the offender under home supervision rather than in prison. Second-time drunken drivers currently face up to two years in prison with a mandatory minimum 120 consecutive days.
While nearly the same bill passed the Democratic-majority House last week, the version adopted Tuesday includes a Senate amendment that disqualifies certain offenders from early release. The Senate passed the bill after seven hours of debate Friday.
Democrats said at least 45 other states have some type of early-release program. House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said the program offers a crucial incentive for inmates to take rehabilitation and self-improvement classes, decreasing the likelihood that they will commit another crime after release.
Another goal is to save the state money by reducing the inmate population, which numbered 17,486 on May 1. The program was initially projected to save $41.8 million over two years; smaller savings are now expected because of the Senate amendment.
"It's an effort to make our society safer," Sharkey said. "It doesn't mean we're soft on crime, it means we're smart on crime."
Republicans in both chambers argued that too many dangerous offenders could still be let out early, including kidnappers, rapists and pedophiles.
"Many of them you just can't rehabilitate," said Rep. Chris Coutu, R-Norwich.
Inmates in the program could earn up to five days per month off their sentence by following guidelines and taking rehabilitation courses to be designed by Connecticut's Commissioner of Correction. The credits can be applied to good behavior going back to April 2006.
The Senate amendment excludes those who have committed murder, capital felonies, felony murder, arson murder, first-degree aggravated sexual assault or home invasion. It also doesn't let credits affect the minimum sentences of other crimes.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said too many dangerous criminals would still be allowed back on the streets too early. "No violent crime should be eligible for early release," he said.
Mikutel said he wanted more restrictions on violent offenders, especially those who committed sex crimes. He also voted in favor of several failed Republican amendments to the bill, including one that would have made 14 additional offenses ineligible for early-release credits.
"Some of these people are better off in prison," he said.
But Democrat Douglas McCrory of Hartford argued that because many violent offenders eventually serve out their sentences and rejoin society, he believes efforts must be made to rehabilitate them during their prison time to protect public safety. He voted in favor of the risk-reduction credits program.
"So when they come home a second chance is available, and not a second chance to commit another crime," McCrory said.