The vast majority of the testimony submitted to the Judiciary Committee Monday for a hearing on a bill to modify the state’s inmate early release program came from upset family members of crime victims.
The program, passed last year, allows inmates the opportunity to come up for parole hearing sooner if they participate in programs aimed at reducing the likelihood they’ll return to prison. An inmate can shave as many as five days a month off their prison sentences by participating.
Lawmakers made inmates accused of six crimes ineligible to earn credits last year. Those crimes are different types of murder and first degree sexual assault. The bill before the Judiciary Committee would add manslaughter convictions to the list of ineligible crimes.
Nancy and Robert McCaffery testified that Ryan Thompson, the man who killed their son Rob, was convicted of manslaughter and is eligible to earn credits. The only difference between murder and manslaughter is the intent, they said.
“However, the end result is the same- our son Rob is still dead regardless of intent. Now the state wants forgive Thompson’s sentence and release him early from prison just to save money and make room for more criminals,” the said.
McCafferys’ testimony was similar to many submitted for Monday’s hearing. State Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz told the committee her office has been flooded with calls from outraged families. She said she supports the bill but thought it should go further and exclude all violent offenders.
“Many of the violent offenders are being granted risk reduction credits for reasons that defy logic and stand in stark contrast to public safety,” she said.
The McCafferys’ questioned the state’s priorities for instituting the program to begin with.
“Rather than spending time and money figuring out creative ways to house more criminal, why not spend that time and money figuring ways to prevent crime in the first place?” they asked.
However, Michael P. Lawlor, the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice, argues that’s exactly the intent of the programs the credits incentivize.
“The whole point is to reduce crime and we’re pretty confident it will have that effect,” he said. “…There are interventions that have proven to be very successful and we just want to make sure these inmates do them.”
Without the programs, it’s more likely an inmate convicted of a violent crime will commit another one after he’s released, he said.
Lawlor said that the credits don’t ensure an inmate is released early, they only allow them to be up for a parole hearing sooner. During those hearings victims and families are given an opportunity to testify and the board can decide not to release them, he said.
Lawmakers looking to exempt more people from the credits also face a constitutional obstacle, he said. While it’s legal to retroactively reduce a sentence, it’s not legal to retroactively increase one.
“Let’s say the bill passes, every inmate would then file a habeas petition to challenge the constitutionality of what just happened. So for every single inmate the attorney general would have to sort this out,” he said.
Lawlor and Department of Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone both questioned the intent of the bill. It is not clear whether it aims to rescind credits already awarded or prohibit credits from being awarded to certain inmates in the future, they said.
Arnone said the current policy benefits the department by allowing it to encourage positive behavior in inmates and maintain good conduct. He said it also benefits the public by reducing recidivism, and inmates by giving them the chance to reduce their sentence.
“To prohibit these inmates from being able to earn risk reduction earned credits would only serve as a disincentive for them to comply with programing, in accordance with their Offender Management Plan, that will benefit them upon their reentry into the community,” he said.
It’s not clear whether Gov. Dannel P. Malloy would sign the bill if the legislature passed it. Most states have a similar program in place and saw a reduction in crime after they were enacted. Malloy’s spokesman, Andrew Doba, said the governor expects to see the same results here in Connecticut.
“We’ll review the legislation to make sure it will accomplish this overall goal,” he said.