A partisan debate over a three-strikes-and-you’re-out law for violent criminals seemed to fade Thursday as the rhetoric from a handful of lawmakers changed to one of consensus about how to make the state safer.
Flanked by top administrators, Gov. M. Jodi Rell said she has not given up on a properly written three strikes proposal – it just wasn’t the focus of the Thursday afternoon meeting at the governor’s residence that Democratic leaders were not invited to attend.
Rell said the discussion centered around “streamlining, strengthening, and simplifying” the persistent felony offender laws that were modified during the January special session on criminal justice reforms. She said she would like to create a study group to specifically look at the persistent felony offender law.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said the current persistent felony offender law reads like the “tax code.” He said every time he goes to read it, it takes him 15 minutes.
Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said he hoped to avoid creating more task forces. He said that after the Cheshire home invasion, the Judiciary Committee heard expert testimony, crafted legislation, and held public hearings on these issues.
“I think we understand the scope of the problem,” he said. Revising the laws now in place is a manageable task and “it sounds like the governor has made an overture to work with the Democrats on the persistent offender statute,” McDonald said.
However, Sen. Sam Caligiuri, R-Waterbury, isn’t ready to back down from a fight over three strikes. “I am not backing off three strikes one inch,” Caligiuri said. He said the fact that it is getting opposition from the majority party “doesn’t deter me in the least.”
He said he doesn’t believe a three strikes law is a panacea, but it is an important component of the criminal justice system.
Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, said the three strikes law proposed by the Republicans isn’t a silver bullet, either, because it still gives prosecutors discretion over whether to prosecute for a third strike or agree to a plea bargain.
Caligiuri said “plea bargaining is part of the process,” and a three strikes law would just create another mandatory minimum sentence for the worst of the worst.
The one thing the Cheshire and New Britain crimes have in common is “all previous convictions were all plea bargained and all wouldn’t have counted as strikes,” Lawlor said. He said that the legislature and the governor need to send the judges and prosecutors a clear message that “there needs to be more trials.”
Lawlor said that 96 percent of cases in Part A criminal courts are plea bargained, which means only 4 percent go to trial. The Part A criminal courts are where the more serious crimes are adjudicated in Connecticut.
Kane said he suspects more than 95 percent of cases end in plea bargains. He said the most important factor is the “strength of that case and the ability of the state to say you’re not going to win this case.” He said he is asking the legislature and the governor to fund enhanced investigations that get prosecutors out to the scene of a crime to oversee the case from the beginning. He also asked for more training for prosecutors.