New laws passed to benefit both victims of crime and offenders

During the short session that ended last week, state lawmakers managed to pass criminal justice reforms intended to benefit victims of crime and ensure more humane conditions for offenders.

"It was a good session," said Katherine Verano, executive director of Safe Futures, the New London-based organization that works with victims of domestic violence.

The General Assembly passed a bill giving police the discretion to arrest only the primary aggressor in a domestic incident involving intimate partners. When both parties are arrested in what is called a "dual arrest," it can discourage a victim from seeking further help and result in legal bills, problems at work, confusion for children and other family hardships, according to bill proponents.  

The bill, effective Jan. 1, 2019, does not prohibit dual arrests, but discourages it when appropriate. At least 27 other states have dominant aggressor laws.

Between 2014 and 2016, 71 percent of the 54,129 domestic violence cases handled by Connecticut state courts involved intimate partners, which includes spouses and other people who are intimately involved, according to figures provided by the Judicial Branch. The percentage was lower in southeastern Connecticut, Verano said, in part because the agency works closely with the police.

"The way the law was written before, it wasn't the police's fault," said Verano. "If they had probable cause that a crime occurred, they were mandated to make an arrest."

Lawmakers also approved increasing from $20 to $35 a surcharge on marriage licenses to fund services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Towns would keep $1 of the surcharge for administrative costs and send the remainder to the Department of Public Health.

Legislators passed a bill that requires health care facilities to contact a sexual assault victim advocate when a victim arrives at their facility, requires the state to maintain an electronic tracking system for sexual assault and make improvements to the way  sexual assault evidence kits are handled.

Changes involving offenders also were enacted this session.

Lawmakers passed a bill that authorizes the Judicial Branch to assume responsibilty, as of July 1, for delinquent children committed to state care. The Department of Children and Families had previously handled the cases of delinquent children and recently closed the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown. The Judicial Branch is developing a program that will involve community-based diversion services and locked and unlocked facilities in several communities.

The lawmakers passed a bill, proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, that strengthens the Department of Correction's obligation to provide information and care to female inmates at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution. DOC spokeswoman Karen Martucci said the agency supported all of the language and that the bill essentially codifies a lot of the practices already taking place at York.

The bill prohibits shackling of pregnant inmates during labor in most cases and requires the DOC to report to legislators instances in which they do restrain a woman during labor. The Fair Treatment of Incarcerated Women law requires the DOC to provide females in its custody with free sanitation products, provide a child-friendly visitation progam and prohibits non-medical staff of the opposite gender from viewing or interfering with incarcerated women while they're undressing, using toilet facilities or showering.

Twenty-two female prisoners gave birth at hospitals in 2016, and 15 incarcerated women had babies in 2017, according to the Department of Correction. Twelve women currently housed at York are pregnant.

The lawmakers also passed a bill restricting judges from sentencing all but the highest-risk offenders to special parole, an intensive form of community supervision provided by parole officers from the Department of Correction. The use of special parole is sometimes used as bargaining chip to reduce prison sentences, and the DOC said it was being used too broadly, taking up half of the parole caseload and beds in halfway houses that could have been used more appropriately by other offenders.

Judges still will be able to sentence offenders to special parole but wil have to take steps to justify the use of the program and will not be able to use it if a defendant is charged with an offense involving the use of drugs but not the sale of drugs, according to the DOC.

The agency has been expanding its use of a methadone treatment program for addicted inmates, expanding recently into the Osborn Correctional Institution. It's the first time the program will be in place for sentenced offenders, Martucci said. Lawmakers passed a bill that authorizes a study of the program and puts in place reporting requirements, Martucci said.

"We're seeing some really good outcomes with those who are remaining on a regimen," Martucci said. "Our methadone program also has a curriculum type component, and that's where we're seeing the most success."

k.florin@theday.com

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