Hugh McQuaid Photo
Michael Lawlor (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

The Correction Department’s early inmate release program was both praised and panned Friday as the Malloy administration touted its benefits and critics forced a hearing on legislation to eliminate it entirely.

The “Risk Reduction Credit” program was passed by the legislature 2011 and allows the department to award inmates credits that can reduce their prison sentence by a maximum of five days a month.

According to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration, credits are earned by participating in programs designed to ease their transitions back into society and reduce the likelihood they will commit another crime.

However, the program has been controversial among Republicans who argue that the credits should not be available to inmates convicted of violent offenses.

At an informational hearing Friday morning before the Judiciary Committee, Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy, argued that violent offenders have not been released earlier under the program than they had been under previous Correction Department policies.

Lawlor said the Malloy administration supported legislation that would statutorily require that violent offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being released from prison. He said that’s been the case already.

“We have not released violent offenders before they served 85 percent of their original sentence. That’s by design and that’s the way it’s going to be in the future. I think it’s appropriate for the legislature to codify that,” he said.

Lawlor said violent offenders had been getting out earlier under various other discretionary programs before the current system was implemented.

In a room next door, opponents of the program rallied support for legislation repealing the credits. Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, got the bill a spot in Friday’s public hearing by invoking a rarely-used legislative rule allowing lawmakers to petition to have bills heard during hearings.

“It’s a technique that has not been used for many years, but I suspect will return to the repertoire now,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Len Suzio (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Len Suzio, a former state senator who lost his seat in a close election last year, said Markley’s bill would be one of the most important pieces of legislation this session. Suzio spent time campaigning against the early release program last year after Ibrahim Ghazal, a 70-year-old shop owner in Suzio’s town of Meriden, was murdered.

Suzio contends that Frankie Resto, the man accused of murdering Ghazal, was out of prison earlier than he would have been otherwise because of early release credits. Suzio called Resto “the poster boy for what’s wrong with the early release program.” He said violent crime was “in [Resto’s] genes, almost.” 

“As dangerous as he was, he was let go under early release. And they knew he was dangerous,” he said.

Ghazal’s son, Fapyo, spoke at the press conference urging passage of the bill to repeal the program.

“This guy [Resto], he destroyed our life. He destroyed my mom’s life. He destroyed my life,” Fapyo Ghazal said.

Although Resto’s case has been used by opponents as an example of the early release program’s shortcomings, the Malloy administration holds him out as evidence the program is keeping violent criminals in prison longer.

Lawlor told the Judiciary Committee that Resto served at least 91 percent of his sentence before being released. Meanwhile, he said many inmates convicted of the crime for which Resto was originally incarcerated had served around 60 to 80 percent of their sentences before being released under older policies.

“By design, violent offenders are being held in longer than ever before,” he said.

Suzio said Lawlor was “playing games with the math.”

“The whole point of the new law was to make it easier to get out of prison,” he said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone said the point of the program was to reduce inmate recidivism. Since the program has been rolled out, he said the average inmate has served around 95 percent of his or her sentence.

“This is not and it has not been a program that we have kicked open the back door and let everybody out,” he said.