The Senate voted Wednesday to ease the threshold for an incarcerated person to qualify for a “compassionate release” during emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic and extended whistleblower protections to correctional employees reporting abuses.

The bill passed 24 to 12, along party lines, after several hours of debate. It gives a prisoner release panel greater flexibility to authorize medical and compassionate parole releases. It also creates a new panel to weigh releases during an emergency.  

Currently, an inmate must have completed at least half their sentence and be deemed physically unable to present a danger to society in order to qualify for a compassionate release. The bill would change the language so the incarcerated person must instead be considered as presenting a significantly reduced risk of danger to society. 

Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who is co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the state found its release policies were too-stringent to meet the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We needed to be able to do things we hadn’t done in the past. One of those things was potentially allow people out of our prisons because we were thinking about the impact of the pandemic on them,” Winfield said. 

The bill would also extend whistleblower protections to correction officers who report the excessive force of other officers. The change would allow them to sue the state within 90 days if they are fired or disciplined for reporting misconduct. 

Republicans objected to the impact they said the compassionate release changes could have on the victims of crime. Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, unsuccessfully attempted to modify the bill to eliminate everything but the whistleblower provisions. 

“I would stress that victims have rights in the state of Connecticut. Not only do we feel that those rights are extremely important, but we’ve enshrined them in our state constitution,” Kissel said. 

Winfield said the new release provisions were an option for the state in the event of emergencies, not a requirement that it release a wave of prisoners. 

“I can’t imagine that — regardless of what you think about people in prisons, regardless of what you think about the issue of prisons at all — the state would not want the tool that it can or maybe doesn’t use, in case we ever find ourselves … in a pandemic like we’re currently in,” Winfield said.

The bill now goes to the House for consideration.