Advocates for victims of violent crimes including prosecutors are rallying against a proposed bill that would loosen restrictions on who would be eligible for release from prison during certain public health emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.
SB 460 would allow a three-person panel of the Board of Pardons and Paroles to review medical or compassionate parole for inmates who present a significantly “reduced risk of danger to society” but who face “a higher risk of harm” if they remain incarcerated during a declared disaster like a pandemic.
The bill would also require the commissioner of the state Department of Correction to increase the amount of early release credits to inmates whose scheduled release date is within one year of an emergency declaration.
The DOC would not have to grant the credits to inmates who are “violent persistent felony offenders” or “persistent dangerous sexual offenders,” under the proposed bill. Inmates who were convicted of a capital felony before April 25, 2012, or murder with special circumstances after April 25, 2012, would also not be eligible for medical or compassionate parole, according to the bill.
Similar proposed legislation didn’t gain traction last year. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, 29 inmates in Connecticut have died and there have been 8,374 positive tests for COVID-19 within the state’s prison population, according to the agency.
The 2022 version of the bill doesn’t mean that everyone who requests medical or compassionate parole during an emergency will receive it, Deborah Del Prete Sullivan, said Friday.
“COVID has demonstrated the difficulties and obstacles that prevent the release of individuals who apply for medical or compassionate parole,” Del Prete Sullivan, from the Chief Public Defender’s Office, said. “This bill does not allow for automatic release. The bill allows certain inmates the opportunity to apply for compassionate release, especially during a time such as the current pandemic, a major or natural disaster, disease epidemic or public health emergency.”
But the state’s Victim Advocate Natasha Pierre pointed out in her written testimony that the disease epidemic could include a flu outbreak which typically is managed by communities and the state.
“The Department of Correction facilities are communities, and similar to other communities, must learn to respond in such instances,” Pierre said. “The answer should not be the evacuation of potentially dangerous people into the communities facing the same emergency.”
Pierre also said the proposed law would change the standard of compassionate release from “being physically incapable of presenting a danger to society” to presenting “a significantly reduced risk of danger to society.”
“Any consideration for granting a compassionate parole release should require the highest standard when determining whether an individual is a risk to crime victims and public safety,” Pierre said.
The state’s Division of Criminal Justice also largely panned the proposal citing concerns that there was no mechanism for victims or prosecutors to be heard during the process.
The division recommended several changes if the proposed bill is voted out of committee including that the Board of Pardons and Paroles have all available information on an inmate seeking compassionate parole including their disciplinary record while incarcerated before a decision is made.
Michele Voigt, co-founder of Violent Crime Victims, an advocacy group for people impacted by violent crime, also wants victims notified and given an opportunity to speak on a potential release.
“This bill gives the proposed panel of the Board of Pardons and Paroles far too much discretion without oversight,” Voigt said in her testimony. “It does not provide crime victims or survivors notification or an opportunity to make a victims impact statement and address the panel.”