Although Connecticut lawmakers defeated the governor’s proposal for a so-called “three-strikes law” in a special session last week, they will take up the subject again on Feb. 5, when the legislature’s full session begins.
Governor M. Jodi Rell signed legislation on Friday that increases prison time for home invasions and reforms an overburdened parole system in the wake a triple murder in Cheshire that grabbed national headlines last summer. The bill strengthens sentencing guidelines and tools for sharing information among law enforcement agencies. But the three-strikes provision, which Rell wanted to be included in the bill, faced opposition from many Democrats and black leaders around the state, who objected to its mandatory minimum of 30 years before inmates can be considered for parole following their third violent offense.
Even so, Chris Cooper, a spokesman for Rell, said she will push the legislature to pass the provision when she makes additional suggestions for criminal justice reform in the next few days.
“I can certainly tell you that she will propose a strong and workable three-strikes law,” Cooper said, although he said he could not say whether the wording of the bill will be identical or slightly modified, because the governor has yet to make her proposals public.
“It didn’t get the votes [last time],” he added. “[But] what she put out there was a very straightforward and workable program.”
But New Haven Rep. Pat Dillon (D-92) said she thinks it is unlikely that there will be any change in votes on the three-strikes provision. The legislature’s time could be better spent on juvenile justice reform and measures meant to reduce criminal recidivism, she added.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. — who listed dealing with prison re-entry as one of his legislative priorities for this year — said there is “unfinished work” to do in reforming the criminal justice system.
“I think [the special session legislation] does not begin to adequately address prison re-entry — preparing the incarcerated for release and the community for their return,” DeStefano said.
He said neither the reforms that passed nor the three-strikes provision that did not pass would have prevented the Cheshire murders. Over the summer, a mother and her daughters were murdered in the suburb of New Haven during a home invasion allegedly by two men on parole. Eight weeks after the murder Rell placed a ban, which she lifted on Sunday, on parole for all violent offenders.
Rep. Mike Lawlor (D-99), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said the focus of Democrats’ reform proposals during the full session will be funding new programs aimed at assisting prisoner re-entry into communities and diverting non-violent offenders out of the prison system.
“It’s not about being soft on crime, or being a ‘bleeding-heart liberal,’ ” Lawlor said. “There are only a finite number of people that can be accommodated, and a growing number of new prisoners means more pressure to release people on the backside. If you want the [prison] system to work, you can’t overload it.”
Lawlor said resolving the overcrowding crisis will require additional spending, either on reducing prison populations or on building new prisons. He said he strongly prefers prison population reduction over adding new prisons.
Cooper said the governor will not be proposing new prison construction, given that some diversion and re-entry programs were already signed in to law Friday and that, beginning Monday, Rell’s suspension of the parole ban had ended.
“The prison population right now is stable,” Cooper said. “There are no plans to build prisons.”
Data released yesterday indicate that as of Jan. 29 the prison population had reached 19,875, an all-time high for Connecticut prisons. Just last June, that figure stood at 18,939, according to the state’s Office of Legislative Research.
About a third of that increase came before the parole ban went into effect, according to numbers maintained by the Office of Fiscal Analysis, based on information provided by the Department of Corrections.
According to a study prepared by Stephen Cox, director of the Connecticut Statistical Analysis Center and the chair of Central Connecticut State University’s department of criminology and criminal justice and provided to the News by the House Democrats office, Connecticut’s prison population could climb above 25,000 inmates by 2012, in the study’s highest estimate.
Under the lowest estimate, prison populations would approach 20,000, while a prediction based solely on the trend over the past 20 years would land the number somewhere between the high and low estimates, according to the study.
Adam Liegeot, a spokesman in Rell’s office, referred the News to the state Department of Corrections for comment on prison population statistics, but the Department could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Last week on Martin Luther King Day, five dozen people gathered outside the Whalley Avenue jail to protest Rell’s parole ban and demand what they called a more humane criminal justice system.
Khalil Iskarous, a member of People Against Injustice — the activist group that organized the protest — said the solution to overpopulation is to address the root causes, which he said involve racial bias in sentencing.