New law means earlier release for state's inmates

"K" felt safe for the first time in years after John Moniz, who had kidnapped her in March 2002 and repeatedly sexually assaulted her, was sentenced in June 2011 to 10 years in prison.

The 53-year-old mother and grandmother knew where Moniz would be living for the next decade and she knew he would be unable to hurt her or anybody else.

But six months later, in December 2011, "K" received a letter from the Department of Correction that said Moniz was eligible to earn time off his sentence under the state's new "Risk Reduction Earned Credit" policy.

Connecticut prisoners can now earn five days off their sentences per month by signing up for in-house rehabilitation programs such as anger management or sex offender treatment. The law was enacted in October 2011 and is retroactive to 2006.

RREC credits are in addition to reductions already made to most sentences. Non-violent offenders must serve 50 percent of their time. Violent offenders must serve 85 percent.

Speaking out

"K" was in the courtroom but chose to remain silent last year when Judge Patrick J. Clifford called Moniz an "extremely dangerous predator" and sentenced him to 10 years in prison followed by 15 years of special parole. The judge ordered Moniz to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life and recommended the state use GPS to track Moniz while he is on parole.

"K" says she will be quiet no more. She contacted legislators and has started an online petition at www.change.org.

"They're not protecting the victims. They're not protecting the survivors. They're patting the criminals on the back," she said.

A spunky woman who stands less than 5 feet tall, she asked that only her first initial be used. The Day does not identify victims of sexual assault.

"K" was so distraught about her rapist's potential early release that she told a prison official in an April phone conversation that she would kill Moniz if he were let out. Local police showed up at her front door as a result of the statement but did not charge her with a crime.

Waiting lists

Moniz, 48, a repeat sex offender who was living in Norwich at the time of his arrest, is one of more than 14,500 Connecticut inmates who have benefited in the year since the General Assembly approved the RREC program. Some already have been released, and the inmate population currently stands at about 17,000 men and women.

As of this month, Moniz had earned 55 days' credit through the RREC program, according to Department of Correction spokesman Brian Garnett. In October, when the law was enacted, he received 15 credits dating back to April 1, 2011, and then five each for the months of November through June.

Garnett could not say what programs Moniz participates in within the prison system. He said the department has implemented the RREC program within its existing budget and that no new programs have been added.

"In some cases there are waiting lists, but the offenders are not penalized because of that, as long as they are signed up," Garnett said.

A night of terror

The only inmates not eligible for the RREC credits are those convicted of crimes for which there is no parole: capital felony, murder, aggravated sexual assault and home invasion. Though Moniz pleaded guilty to first-degree kidnapping and first-degree sexual assault, he was not sentenced under the subsection of the sexual assault law that pertains to aggravated sexual assault.

"K" does not understand the distinction. She had been abducted by a stranger as she left a friend's New London apartment at 4 a.m. to go to her job at a convenience store. Moniz jumped into her car, shoved her aside and began what would be an eight-hour ordeal.

"He told me he was going to slice me up and where he was going to leave my body parts," she remembered during a recent interview at her apartment. "He forced me to ride in the car naked. The more I screamed, the more he beat me."

Moniz drove her to New York and back. According to "K," he dropped her off at a local gas station, telling her "I know where you live." Over the next several years, as she worked to get her life back, she said she continued to look over her shoulder. New London police continued to work the case and arrested Moniz in 2010 after receiving word that DNA from the crime matched that of Moniz, who had been charged with an attack on another woman.

A modest incentive

Garnett, the Department of Correction spokesman, called the RREC program a modest incentive when compared to other states. He said it is meant to engage inmates in programs so they'll do better once they are released.

"Other states hand out the time. Here, you have to earn it, and you can lose it," he said

Prior to 1994, Connecticut prisoners could earn 10 to 12 days per month off their sentences simply by staying out of trouble in prison. The so-called "good time" law was repealed in 1994, though it still applies to those who committed a crimes prior to that date.

One of the legislators to whom "K" reached out when she learned her attacker could be released early was State Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, who had voted in favor of the RREC program. Hewett, who voted against repealing the death penalty, said he didn't just "reach up and push the green button" for the risk-reduction program.

"I'm not trying to minimize her fear at all, because I can't imagine what she's going through," Hewett said. "What the bill tried to do was give these people programs in prison and get them some help. Even if the guy spends the whole 10 years in prison, at some point he's going to come back to the street."

Hewett noted that Moniz will have to go before the Board of Pardons and Parole before he is released, and the victim will get an opportunity to tell the board how she feels. He said Moniz will be closely supervised by parole upon his release from prison.

"I'm not saying this is the save-all," he said. "All I know is, these people have problems and they need to get help for it."

'Justice for criminals'

Dr. Sam Rieger, whose daughter Melanie was murdered by her boyfriend, organizes an annual conference for crime victims and the people who work with them.

"If you look at the people that are in and out of prison, they have huge rap sheets," Rieger said at last month's conference. "They're not going to get any better. Why are we doing that? The legal system, some people say, is justice for criminals, not criminal justice."

"It's basically about money and budget," said Audrey Carlson, whose 24-year-old daughter Elizabeth was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in Newington in 2002.

Connecticut's inmate population has dropped from 17,662 to 16,600 since the RREC law was enacted, but Garnett said the decrease is the result of a number of factors, one of which is that the crime rate is lower. In the two years before the RREC program became law, three prisons were closed because the inmate population was declining steadily.

The average daily cost of incarceration is approximately $93.29 per inmate, and the cost of supervising an offender in the community averages to approximately $32.66 a day, according to the Department of Correction.

Garnett said the savings from RREC are not easily quantifiable, because the number of prisons hasn't changed since the law was enacted.

Victim consideration

Janice Heggie Margolis, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said she also has questions about the new law. She said RREC is different from another new program that enables those convicted of drunken driving to be released early to home confinement and supervision. The RREC program does apply, in general, to those convicted of killing someone while driving drunk.

Garnett said the department considers victim and survivor input and public safety when applying risk reduction credits.

"If a victim or a victim's survivors write us a letter regarding RREC credit, what we look at is if the RREC is going to adversely affect public safety, in that, for example, an offender may get out before he has an opportunity to address his needs; (in that case) we would not apply the RREC," he said.

Up to the prisons

The new law makes it difficult for court-based victim advocates to explain sentencing to crime victims.

"The advocates have always discussed with crime victims the impact of the sentences," said Linda Cimino, director of the Judicial Branch's Office of Victim Services. "There were some 50 percent sentences and 85 percent sentences. Now there's this whole overlay of RREC. We explain that the sentence they hear the judge order may be reduced based on the RREC program."

The attorneys who work in the criminal court system said the reduced sentences are not necessarily a part of plea negotiations, because it ultimately is up to the Department of Correction, not the courts, to decide when a prisoner will be released.

"We generally don't explicitly address it because we can't make any promises," said Lawrence J. Tytla, a longtime New London Superior Court prosecutor.

"Don't forget, when inmates are sentenced, the judge says, 'I commit you to the custody of the Commissioner of Corrections,'" said Bruce A. Sturman, lead public defender in New London County.

Sturman said he always tells his clients to behave and be productive in prison and to get into whatever programs they can.

The attorneys and judges who have worked in the system for years have seen the pendulum swing both ways.

"When I was first on the bench, in 1993, you'd sentence someone in the morning and that weekend you'd see them at the Stop & Shop," Superior Court Judge Susan B. Handy said. Speaking at last month's victims conference in response to a question about sentencing laws, Handy said it can be frustrating for judges to sentence defendants without really knowing how much time they are going to serve. She said judges sentence according to what they feel is fair under all the circumstances.

Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane, who also spoke at the victims conference, said that prior to 1981, every convicted felon received an indeterminate sentence. Prisoners might be told they would be serving five to 10 years in prison, or 20 years to life in prison.

"There were a lot of problems with that because people never knew what the sentence would be," Kane said.

Flat sentencing was introduced, then split sentencing, in which people serve their prison term followed by a specific period of state supervision. "K's" attacker has a split sentence: 20 years in prison, suspended after 10 years served, followed by 15 years of special parole.

Special parole is a strict form of state supervision in which offenders who do not comply can be re-incarcerated for the remainder of their sentence without a trial.

"The idea of releasing people early with supervision rather than just letting them walk out the door with a bus ticket is a good one," Kane said.

k.florin@theday.com

More info

To view "K's" petition, go to www.change.org/petitions/ct-judiciary-committee-do-away-with-housebill-6650-public-act-11-51

For information on the RREC program, go to www.ct.gov/doc/cwp/view.asp?a=1502&Q=481866.

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