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    Thursday, June 13, 2024

    Criminal justice reforms on the table in Hartford

    Hartford - The Malloy administration is advancing a major initiative to give nonviolent offenders a second chance at becoming productive citizens.

    Republican legislators are trying to repeal or amend a 2011 law that enables prisoners - some of them serving time for violent crimes - to earn up to five days per month off their sentences.

    The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, according to the Sen. Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven.

    Fasano and other Republican lawmakers have proposed a dozen bills - none of which are likely to advance during the current legislative session - that would eliminate or amend the Risk Reduction Earned Credit (RREC) law, passed in 2011, that enables most prisoners to earn time off their sentences by participating in treatment and educational programs.

    Prompting the proposals, Fasanso said, are citizen complaints that dangerous prisoners are being released too early, and that nobody can be held accountable if those convicts commit violent crimes.

    Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's Second Chance Society proposal includes eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences in simple drug possession cases, reducing some drug crimes from larcenies to misdemeanors, making it easier for reformed convicts to obtain pardons and rededicating one of the state's prisons to help inmates prepare for release.

    "I have told the governor I am willing to sit down and talk to him about that," Fasano said during a phone interview last week. "These are people who are hooked on substances. We need to deal with these people different than we deal with hardened criminals."

    Some of the Republican proposals would do away with the Risk Reduction Earned Credit law altogether. Some want to make the program unavailable to anybody convicted of any violent crime. As enacted, RREC excludes only those convicted of capital felony, murder, aggravated sexual assault and home invasion,

    Fasano proposes amending the law to require a warden or deputy warden to review and approve the release of inmates.

    "Some bean counter in a back room is counting off the days, counting up the programs," Fasano said. "No one is verifying that they've actually taken the program, benefited from the program. When you start having someone signing that paper saying this person is OK to go back into society before they are let out, that they've completed the programs and been rehabilitated, then I might be OK with it."

    The state's prison population, which hit a 16-year low of 16,160 on Saturday morning, has been declining along with crimes and arrests, according to Michael P. Lawlor, Malloy's undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning. Lawlor, a former prosecutor and legislator, said most of the country is moving toward criminal justice reforms similar to the Second Chance Society.

    "Republicans understand that and are willing to talk about it," Lawlor said in a phone conversation last week. He said understanding the Risk Reduction Earned Credit Law is more complicated.

    "Many of the proposals I've seen kicked around are based on a misunderstanding of how the system actually works," Lawlor said. "There's actually a lot fewer people being released from prison than there were. The net effect is that violent offenders actually stay in much longer. They serve a much greater part of their sentence."

    Regardless of their eligibility for RREC, all violent offenders are required to serve 85 percent of their prison sentences before they are eligible for release. Nonviolent offenders must serve 50 percent of their sentences.

    Newly sentenced inmates get assessed and are assigned an offender accountability plan that lists the things they are expected to do while incarcerated, such as take courses, undergo counseling or have a job.

    "All are geared toward lowering the risk that they'll re-offend," he said. "As long as they're doing all the things on the list, they're earning credit."

    The inmates lose the credits if they misbehave, and prison officials are better equipped to sort out who is dangerous and who is not dangerous. Most states have similar programs, including Texas, where inmates can earn as much as 10 days off a month, Lawlor said.

    The vast majority of people incarcerated at any given time will be released back into society. With its Second Chance Society proposal, the administration wants to better equip prisoners to be productive. The Department of Correction would dedicate a yet-unnamed prison, likely in the Enfield or Somers area, to specialize in dealing with inmates near the end of their sentences, according to Lawlor.

    "This is not Democrat or Republican or liberal or conservative," Lawlor said. "Our goal, the only goal we have, is to reduce crime."

    k.florin@theday.com

    TWITTER: @KFLORIN

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