Christine Stuart  / ctnewsjunkie file photo
Part of the mothballed annex of Obsorn Correctional (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The state’s inmate population dropped below 13,000 last week, hitting its lowest level in 25 years, according to state Department of Correction officials.

But it may be too soon to tell if the steady reduction in incarcerated offenders will lead to budget savings or more prison closures, officials said.

“We’ve had unit closures and one full facility close,” said agency spokesperson Karen Martucci. “But the staff are absorbed, so you aren’t having any savings in terms of personnel.”

State prisons held 12,986 inmates on May 10 -–  the lowest number since September of 1993. The prison population peaked at 19,894 in February of 2008 and has been trending downward nine of the past 10 years at a rate of about 3 percent a year, according to a February 2018 Office of Policy and Management Criminal Justice Policy & Planning Division report.

The agency closed a portion of Osborn Correctional Institution and a portion of York Correctional Institution in 2016. The Enfield Correctional Institution was closed completely in 2017 and Bergin Correctional Institution was closed in 2011, Martucci said.

More units are in the process of being closed but there are no discussions or plans to close any full corrections facilities, Martucci said. “When portions or units within facilities are closed, the inmates are moved to empty beds,” she said. “In order to run a safe and productive correctional system, you have to have some wiggle room to move inmates.”

Several factors may be contributing to the reduction in inmates, the CJPPD report said. The number of crimes reported statewide and nationally has gone down by about 5 percent a year, according to figures provided as part of the Uniform Crime Reporting system.

The number of arrests in Connecticut also has dropped during the same time frame. A 2018 CJPPD report indicated that prior to 2016, the prison population fell primarily because admissions into the system were down.

The same report said that in 2016 and 2017, the state’s criminal justice system made a concerted effort to vet sentenced offenders who were appropriate for community supervision outside of prison. As a result of the improved release processes at DOC, in 2017, 47 percent of those finishing their sentences did so while in some form of community supervision, compared to 39 percent in 2013.

In 2016 and 2017, the prison population dropped by more than 6 percent each year. The state is predicting that in 2019, the prison population will drop another 5.25 percent.

The DOC has reduced its budget by $79 million as the state’s prison population has dropped, Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook told the Appropriations Committee in March.

Cook told the legislators that he expected that future reductions in the state’s incarcerated population will come from reductions in the state’s recidivism rate.

Although Cook highlighted the agency’s $79 million budget savings through a declining prison population and by closing facilities and units, the DOC is struggling with increased costs in other areas, according to his testimony before the Appropriations Committee.

As the 2019 fiscal drew to a close, the agency was looking at a $38 million deficiency blamed in part on an increase in inmate health care costs resulting from the transition from UConn’s Correctional Managed Health Care program to an inmate health care system run by the DOC. The agency also was required to take on 79 additional employees from the state Department of Children and Families when the Connecticut Juvenile Training Center closed last year, Cook said.

He is now seeking a nearly $38 million boost from the Appropriations Committee for the 2019 fiscal year which ends June 30. The Office of Policy and Management predicted the bulk of the money would come from $32 million in Department of Social Services accounts that still have funding.

The Appropriations Committee kept Cook’s biennial budget at the level funded by Gov. Ned Lamont –-  which included increases of $8 million in 2020 and $27 million in 2021.

At the same time, Cook said, the agency will reduce overtime by $5 million by hiring more correction officers, save nearly $4 million by closing three units at the Northern and Bridgeport Correctional Institutions and two cottages at the Mason Youth Institution, and reduce $1 million in overtime for parole and community services.

“We want to be responsible to the state budget,” Martucci said. “We’re working really hard on health care while trying to safely staff our facilities and treat our offenders.”