The Correction Department estimates that somewhere around 500 inmates will be allowed to finish their sentences early within the next 90 days under a legislative initiative designed to reduce recidivism, according to Michael Lawlor, the governor’s top criminal justice adviser.

The Earned Risk Reduction Credit program was passed by the General Assembly last session and goes into effect tomorrow for the state’s incarcerated population. Under the initiative, inmates can earn credits to shave up to five days a month off their prison sentences by participating in programs designed to ease their transitions back into society.

It is available to most inmates except those convicted of murder, capital felony, felony murder, arson murder, first-degree aggravated sexual assault, and home invasion. 

The program was written retroactively so credits can be awarded for programs taken as far back as April 1, 2006, 66 months ago. Theoretically that means a well-behaved and ambitious prisoner could have already earned close to a year, 330 days, of time off his or her sentence.

Lawlor said in July the DOC began applying the program to some people already released from prison but still under state supervision. Since then 164 parolees have had their supervision ended early.

The idea is to start with parolees to ease the caseloads of parole officers and supervisors then move to low-level, non-violent offenders still in prison, he said. Eventually the program will be available to higher-level offenders but the goal is apply it in a way that’s manageable for the entire system, Lawlor said.

Prior to the implementation of the credits, Connecticut was one only a handful of states that did not employ a similar program, he said. States that have chosen to adopt some sort of good time reward for inmates have all seen a drop in crime rates and recidivism rates, he said.

“States that aren’t doing it aren’t experiencing the drop in crime. States like California,” he said.

The new credits are not without critics, however. Republicans railed against it throughout the legislative process. Senate Minority Leader John McKinney maintained Friday that the program should not have been extended to any violent offenders.

“Alternatives to incarceration programs are very useful for nonviolent offenders. I just think it’s bad public policy for violent offenders,” he said.

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero agreed.

“We were open to the concept but risk reduction, but we proved on the floor of the House, applies to almost everybody,” he said.

Cafero said he would like to see the department provide a list of inmates released early under the program and what their offenses were. Its possible offenders released early will just get out and commit more crimes, Cafero said, calling it “a sloppy attempt to empty out the cells.”

Lawlor said the information Cafero requested was public information.

“Whatever information the want they have direct access to and can have it,” he said.

But he noted the matter was more complicated than a list of names and offenses. Prisoners are released from incarceration through a host of different avenues. They may for example be released into a halfway house, or into transitional services, he said. They may be let out on parole or be free on a split sentence. How the risk reduction credits apply vary in each circumstance, he said.

Unions representing correctional officers are also critical of the program. Luke Leone, president of AFSCME Local 1565, was skeptical the programs and classes inmates take to earn the credits will actually reduce the likelihood they will wind up back in prison.

“The reality is you’re not going to put someone back in the city of Bridgeport and have him stay out of trouble when he’s used to making $1,000 a day as a drug dealer. There’s just no jobs out there for these guys,” he said.

Lawlor maintained that historically other states like New York have seen unprecedented drops in their crime rates after adopting similar programs.

“If he’s right Connecticut will be the first state to not experience what we’re expecting, which is a drop in recidivism,” he said.

He noted the risk reduction credits are only an incentive for prisoners to take programs that have been available in the state’s prison for some time, during which the crime rate and the inmate population have both dropped.

Leone is currently a party to a lawsuit in Hartford Superior Court, which asks the state to reopen a recently closed prison to combat overcrowding issues. He conceded the new program will help to alleviate that problem but said it will do too little at too high a risk.

“Any time you start putting inmates on the streets early it’s a bad situation,” he said.

Any relief the early releases provide the prison system will be temporary, Leone predicted. The state may have a plan to get 500 inmates out the door but there is no way to stop more from coming in, he said.

But Lawlor pointed to a steadily declining crime rate and prison population. The risk reduction credits will add about 100 more inmates to the 600 or 700 who are discharged after the sentences expire each month, he said.