By SUSAN HAIGH
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – The Democratic-controlled Connecticut Senate voted Friday evening to place limits on which prisoners should be allowed to shorten their sentences by earning credits for good behavior under a new program. But it wasn’t enough to satisfy Republican senators.
Senators, on a mostly party-line vote, approved an amended bill, 21-14, that would prevent prisoners currently ineligible for parole, such as murderers, from participating in the program backed by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration. The vote followed approximately seven hours of debate, which at times became heated.
“The facts before us are undeniable, that individuals who committed heinous violent crimes will be entitled to early release – good credit risk reduction credits, you can call them anything you want – they get to get out earlier,” said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield. “It’s called getting out of jail earlier than you’re supposed to.”
Democrats pointed out how the bill also makes it clear that the Department of Correction commissioner, who decides whether an inmate can earn credits, cannot use the program to reduce a criminal’s mandatory minimum sentence.
There are about 64 offenses under Connecticut law that carry mandatory minimum sentences, said Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. In the case of an assault of a pregnant woman, for example, the maximum sentence is 25 years and the mandatory minimum that must be served is 10 years. Under this program, the 10 years must be served and any reduction would be shaved from the remaining 15 years.
“We’re not talking about release any time in the near future,” Coleman said.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney and other Democrats said people need to realize that almost everyone who enters the state’s prison system, except for the most serious, dangerous violent offenders, will eventually be released. Looney said it makes sense to create a system that gives prisoners an incentive to participate in programs that can reduce the chance they will reoffend once they’ve been released.
“What this program will provide is a better way to make sure they get some meaningful programs while they are incarcerated,” said Looney, adding how Connecticut and New Hampshire are the only New England states that do not have some kind of sentence reduction program to help reduce recidivism.
Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, called the bill balanced and said there were widespread exclusions from the credit program, despite concerns voiced by the GOP.
“This is a very important direction for Connecticut. We’re going in the wrong direction now,” said Meyer, referring to the state’s high reoffender rate. “This is not a gamble. This is based on the experience of other states, other countries and federal policies. It will bring us in a new direction, a new direction that will … ensure a much higher degree of public safety.”
The concept of a credit program was originally suggested under former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration.
Republican senators remained angry that some criminals, including sex offenders, would still have the possibility of shaving some time off their sentences. Some made references to a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire, which left a mother and her two daughters dead. The legislature learned after that incident about how the state’s parole board did not have all the information it needed about one of the suspects, a convicted burglar, before deciding to release him. They said that could happen again under this program and argued it was more about saving money than protecting the public.
They also criticized a provision in the bill that allows the commissioner to make the credits retroactive to 2006.
Republicans offered a series of amendments to create exemptions from the program for everyone from pedophiles to human traffickers but each one failed. Democrats repeatedly said they didn’t think the amendments were necessary because there were proper protections in the bill.
Senate Democrats offered the amendment on Friday because confusion arose after the House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this week that appeared to allow violent felons who are ineligible for parole to participate in the credit program. There was also confusion about whether the bill allowed inmates to earn credits simply for behaving in prison.
The bill now returns to the House for final legislative action.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)