The number of inmates in Connecticut prisons has swelled over a period of expected decline in what criminal justice officials hope is a short-term parole backlog based on changes enacted after the 2007 Cheshire murders.
Although the state’s prison population has been trending downward in recent years, it has increased by about 400 inmates since April. Typically, the prison population drops between April and July. On July 1, the Correction Department housed about 17,000 prisoners when officials had predicted it would only have around 16,500.
Michael P. Lawlor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s criminal justice adviser, said the prison population increase has not been caused by additional prisoners entering the system. Lawlor said inmate numbers have expanded because fewer prisoners are being paroled.
He said the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles’ process has slowed as a result of recently implemented policies, which were passed after a 2007 Cheshire home invasion when a mother and her two daughters were murdered. Both the men convicted of that crime had been on parole for less serious crimes like breaking and entering.
Lawlor said new policies require the parole board to have a standardized decision-making process when it comes to who is released from prison with a greater degree of risk assessment. The goal is to more effectively identify high-risk individuals and prevent their parole.
But those policies have made the parole process more elaborate and given the parole board more information to assess. Lawlor said that has resulted in fewer inmates getting parole hearings as soon as they otherwise would have, so less people are getting out of prison.
Asked why the state is only now seeing the impact of policies passed in 2008, Lawlor said that former Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration did not implement them.
“I think it’s charitable to say that implementing these policies were not a big priority of the previous administration,” he said.
It’s unclear whether the unexpected rise in the inmate population will require the state to reopen any of the prisons it has recently mothballed. Lawlor said he hopes the increase will be a short-term occurrence while the parole board grows accustomed to new requirements. Even if the trend continues for the rest of this year, he said the state has unused capacity in some of its facilities that should be able to absorb the increase without additional resources.
“I don’t think we have to make a decision on reopening a closed prison anytime soon,” he said.
Unions representing the state’s correction workers have at times warned of prison overcrowding issues. In 2011, they tried to get a court to reopen a closed prison over concerns that inmates were being housed in “non-conventional” areas like facility gymnasiums.
Although he said some prisoners are still held that way, AFSCME Local 1565 President Luke Leone agreed with Lawlor that the state could likely absorb the recent bump in prisoners by utilizing currently unused but recently-renovated areas of facilities
“We still see overcrowding. There’s still inmates sleeping in unconventional housing throughout the state. I would love to see another prison open. I just don’t see that happening,” Leone said.
The state’s monthly prison population forecast notes that the state’s recently-enacted gun control legislation included a provision ensuring that inmates convicted of violent crimes are not able to be released prior to serving at least 85 percent of their sentences. That change could impact about 4,200 offenders who previously may have been able to seek parole sooner under the state’s risk reduction credit program.
“These changes will almost certainly result in increased demand on the existing prison bed capacity,” the July report said.
Lawlor has maintained that the state has not released inmates convicted of violent crimes prior to the 85 percent benchmark anyway. He said the risk reduction credit program has been politicized since it was enacted. Many Republicans accused the administration of enacting the policy to release inmates in an effort to save money.
“The facts are the exact opposite. We’re not releasing more people, we’re releasing fewer,” Lawlor said.