Hugh McQuaid Photo
Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

State Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz spent two hours Tuesday fighting what may be one of her last battles in the position over a program allowing the early release of prison inmates.

Cruz, who was appointed under former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, testified at a hearing convened by Republican lawmakers to look into the Risk Reduction Earned Credit program.

Cruz’s appointed term ran up in April and an advisory committee began meeting last month to compile a list of suitable candidates to submit to Gov. Dannel Malloy for appointment.

But the state’s move towards potentially replacing her has raised some eyebrows given Cruz’s recent public opposition to the risk reduction program championed by the Malloy administration.

Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican who called for Tuesday’s hearing, said regardless of whether there’s any connection, the timing of the advisory board was horrible.

“It just appears that when someone steps up and wants to speak out on a matter of importance to public safety, to turn around and find out that her job’s being posted, I don’t know, in the least it sends a bad signal to the public,” Kissel said.

Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and chairman of the advisory board, said statute requires the group to come up with a list candidates.

Christine Stuart File Photo
Mike Lawlor (Christine Stuart File Photo)

“Our only job is to give the governor a list of between five and seven people from which he can choose to appoint to a term,” Lawlor said. “[Cruz] can apply.”

Cruz said she began inquiring about her job when her term expired but hasn’t heard anything back from the administration. Her term expired a few weeks after she and Sen. Andrew Roraback met with upset relatives of crime victims at the Capitol.

“About a week and a half, two weeks after I went public with the press conference, I was informed—I haven’t been told anything—that they’re looking to replace me,” Cruz said after the hearing.

Since then she’s appeared at hearings and several news conferences with lawmakers opposed to the program. Cruz said her gut feeling was that the administration was frustrated with her opposition.

“There are a lot of people who feel the way I do who won’t come forward and there’s a reason,” she said. “… I’m standing up against the administration, the very reason why the office is independent.”

Cruz points to the minutes of the advisory board’s August meeting which indicate Lawlor suggested submitting legislation that would give the advisory board more authority over the victim advocate.

Lawlor said as the board considers candidates it’s not looking for someone who’s supportive of all the administrations policies.

“We’re looking for someone who can be an effective advocate for victims,” he said.

But Cruz sees her opposition to the program, which allows inmates to shave up to five days a month off the date at which they can go before a parole board, as advocating for the families of victims.

“The Department of Corrections Victims Service Unit heard from 250 victims in one day about this program and what I can tell you is almost all of them felt betrayed,” Cruz told lawmakers.

On Tuesday she was the only person to testify at the hearing attended by over a dozen Republicans and one Democrat. Democrats largely declined to participate in informational hearing, considering it election year campaign fodder.

“This is a political stunt. That’s what this is,” Lawlor said of the hearing.

New Haven Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield still decided attend. The lone Democrat said with Republicans connecting murders to the program the public may begin to feel unsafe.

“It’s something you might want to have a conversation about in public. And the fact that Democrats largely did not show up, listen, that can be a problem for Democrats,” Holder-Winfield said, adding that if no Democrats had attended it might send the message they didn’t care about the issue, which is untrue.

Lawlor maintains the program is good public policy. The vast majority of inmates will eventually be released from prison and the credits are used to incentivize participation in programs that ease their transition back into society and make them less likely to commit another crime, he said. 

Similar programs are in place in nearly every other state and have proven to be effective in reducing recidivism, he said.

Lawlor, who turned down an offer to testify at the hearing, said if Republicans truly wanted to learn more about the program they could attend next Thursday’s Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission, where the program will be discussed at length.

Republicans, on the other hand, maintained the hearing was necessitated by incidents like the June murder of Ibrahim Ghazal. Police charged Frankie Resto, a former inmate who had been awarded credits.

“There are issues that arise outside the times where we are formerly in session that still demand immediate attention. This is one of those issues,” Kissel said during the hearing. “Public safety is our priority. One tragedy has already occurred and our goal is to prevent future tragedies.”

After listening to Cruz’s research into the program, several Republicans said her report confirmed their suspicions that its being mismanaged. Soon after the hearing was over House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero issued a press release calling for the program to be suspended.

“I think in the 14 years I’ve been here, I’ve never been more scared by a powerful presentation of anyone before any committee I’ve sat on,” Senate Republican leader John McKinney told Cruz.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Cruz answer questions from Republican leaders Lawrence Cafero and John McKinney (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Cruz laid out a series of concerns over the program’s management including credits being awarded to inmates who participated in programs that did not target the root cause of their criminal behavior. She said there isn’t adequate staff to supervise inmates who’ve been released from prison when 7,589 have been released after having earned credits.

Lawlor said inmates typically participate in classes aimed at their root problems early in their sentence and then participate in transitional programs as they near the end of their sentence. He said Cruz’s numbers were misleading considering the number of inmates being released from prison has not risen from previous years.

“You listen to what’s being said up there and you’d get the impression that 7,000 people were being released overnight and that actually did not happen. The total number of releases this year and last year were the same as it’s been,” he said.

Lawlor acknowledges the credits are an area where some people have ideological differences and Republicans haven’t been shy about their intention to campaign on them.

“I think it’s completely fair game for all Republicans to campaign against any Democrat who voted for the early release program,” McKinney said back in July.

But McKinney had kind words for Cruz, who he thanked Tuesday for taking the time to compile a 45-page powerpoint presentation on the program.

“You are fighting for victims as you always have done. There are those who are uncomfortable with that. Too bad,” McKinney said.