(Updated at 7:30 p.m.) The Senate passed a budget implementer Friday containing the controversial inmate risk reduction credit provision passed by the House earlier this week. The measure passed 21-14 following seven hours of debate and 13 failed amendments.
The provision would allow prison inmates to earn credits toward early release by participating in programs designed to ease their transition back into society. The program would allow inmates to earn a maximum of five days per month, to be taken off the end of their period of incarceration.
The measure was amended Friday following confusion throughout the week over what kind of offenders would be eligible. The vote on the amendment was 20-14 and fell mostly along party lines with only Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, breaking ranks with her caucus to oppose it.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said it was good the amendment took out certain violent crimes, including any crime where the offender would not be eligible for parole, but said it still includes too many offenses.
“’[The amendment] is essentially watering down the direction of the underlying bill. That’s how I characterize it and it’s not my intention to characterize flatteringly,” he said.
The underlying concept is not necessarily a bad one, Kissel said, but the way the legislature is considering implementing it, is. The provision seems to be driven by potential savings rather than public safety, Kissel said.
Standing outside the Senate chamber, Kissel explained that he was especially fired up Friday because he knows quite a bit about the subject. As ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, he said that he has traveled around the country attending meetings about the early release programs. The concept can work but it needs support from both parties and the public, he said.
Violent criminals should not be eligible, Kissel said, and the early release of prisoners should not be at the sole discretion of the Department of Correction commissioner, who answers to the governor.
“I’m going to tell you what this bill does, even as amended — it puts one person in charge of our entire criminal justice system and that’s Gov. Dannel Malloy,” Kissel said adding he would not be seeding his vote to the governor.
“Commissioner of corrections is going to make this policy on his own? He takes orders from his boss,” he said.
Kissel said he didn’t know whether inmates were going to get the credits five years retroactively, but he said it likely depends on how much savings the governor needs.
Throughout the debate Democrats rose to defend the measure.
Senate President Don Williams accused Republicans of wanting to appear tough on crime while simultaneously wanting to reduce spending within the corrections system. The alternative budget proposed by Republicans actually assumed more savings in the sector than the budget the bill was meant to implement, he said.
Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said the concept is not a gamble since it’s based on the successful programs of other states. Connecticut is one of only five states that do not offer a similar program.
Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, spoke of a friend who participated in a program and went on to get out of prison and become a productive member of society. She said it is the offenders who do not participate and serve their entire sentences who end up offending again and returning to prison.
But Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said his conscience will be clear after he votes against the legislation. He brought up a string of crimes for which the offenders would be eligible for early release under the program. Some of them involved the sexual assault of minors.
“I know I’m making you uncomfortable. But I don’t feel sorry about that. I hope you do. I pray you do,” he told his colleagues.
Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said that despite how vile the crimes are, those people will return to their communities at some point.
“Except for the most violent offenders in our system, almost everyone who goes into prison does in fact come out again at some time. That’s one of the reasons we have such a high rate of recidivism — most of the people who come out historically have not addressed their underlying problems.”
The program would give them an incentive to address those problems, he said.
Looney said the measure, as amended, also strengthens the hand of the Department of Correction by giving it more leverage over inmates. For instance, if an inmate earned five days of credit in April and then misbehaved in May, the department could take away those credits, he said. If the inmate did something especially egregious, the department could take away the option for future credits, he said.
After debating and trying to amend the risk reduction credit aspect of the bill, Republicans also attempted to alter another provision of the implementer. The bill eliminates the state’s 30 percent share of the overtime pay of resident state troopers. The amendment attempted to restore that funding so municipalities would not be responsible for 100 percent of those costs. It also failed to pass.
The measure must now be sent back to the House for another vote because it was amended by the Senate.