Christine Stuart photo

Two legislative committees received progress reports Thursday from state officials in charge of implementing the criminal justice reforms the legislature passed this year when it reassessed the state’s criminal justice system following the deadly 2007 Cheshire home invasion.

The co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee said in a press release that they called Thursday’s hearing to make sure the reforms they put in place continue to be adequately funded at a time when the state is facing a $300 million budget deficit.

“Mostly what we heard today is good news and its encouraging,” Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, said at the conclusion of the more than four-hour long meeting.

Earlier in the meeting, Lawlor questioned Gov. Rell’s Budget Secretary Robert Genuario about the increase in the prison population and the Correction Department’s projected $26 to $32 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2009. Genuario said if the Board of Pardons and Paroles starts paroling offenders based on its new stricter criteria at about 200 offenders a month before January 2009 the shortfall within the Correction Department will go down as the population decreases by an estimated 600 inmates.

Robert Farr, chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said he has a team of people looking at a backlog of about 500 cases and is optimistic 600 offenders may be released before the start of the new year.

“A prison population certainly drives expenses. I mean there’s just no question about it,” Genuario said. “We will need to monitor this. Do our best to get the prison population down, as well as reasonable. Keep the public safety issues in mind.”

Genuario said there are no plans to build any new prison facilities and there are currently no plans to send prisoners out of state.

The prison population has fluctuated from a low of 18, 818 inmates on June 16, 2007, which was one month before the home invasion in Cheshire, to a high of 19,894 inmates on February 1, 2008, which was before Rell lifted her ban on parole for violent offenders. The prison population as of Oct. 15 was 19,613 inmates.

Correction Department Commissioner Theresa Lantz said she remains optimistic that the prison population will decrease. “In 2007 we had a very tragic event that basically rocked us to the core. The criminal justice system to the core. And as a result of that our population did increase and rightly so,” she said.

She said the population gained 1,000 in a very short time, but had begun to decrease again until this summer when urban violence increased as law enforcement stepped up its agenda. She said that’s when the pretrial population began to grow again.

“That wasn’t unexpected,” she added. “We can manage it.”
She said as the Board of Pardons and Paroles attacks the backlog it has, offenders will be released back into the community. “Do I think that the 19,000 is doable by January 1st? I think that’s optimistic.”

“This type of cultural organization change does not happen in a few months,” Lantz said.

From her vantage point in the criminal justice system, Chief Public Defender Susan Storey, said she wasn’t as optimistic as Lantz about reducing the prison population.

She said bond amounts for individuals charged with crimes is getting higher and more people coming into the criminal justice system are represented by the public defenders because they are indigent, which is an indication they can not pay the bonds set by the courts. “And not being able to make bond is the highest predictor of having a sentence of incarceration imposed,” she said.

As the economy continues to decline, Storey predicted that her office will have more clients.

“Last year public defenders represented about 75 percent of incoming cases in the judicial district criminal courts we’re up to 83 percent on average this year,” she said.

“I guess I’m not as optimistic to reduce prison overcrowding as some other people are,” Storey said.  “I don’t see the safety-valve here to reduce the prison population,” she said after reciting all the changes to the criminal justice system.

Back to the budget

Rep. Kevin DelGobbo, R-Naugatuck, said with the state facing a significant budget deficit, “to what extent are these initiatives jeopardized?” He said he would hate to see these initiatives derailed.

Genuario said we are facing significant deficit this year and my opinion it pales to fiscal issues we’re going to have in 2010. “This was an important policy initiative of the governor. It was an important policy initiative of the legislature,” Genuario said.

“The challenge we will have next January is reconciling those competing interests with what will clearly be reduced resources,” he added.