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State Maps Way Out Of Prisons Box

February 17, 2007
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer

After spending $1 billion to build 12 new prisons a decade ago, Connecticut realized a building boom couldn't contain an exploding inmate population.

When construction was completed in 1996 and 11,000 beds added, the prisoner-crunch was worse.

Things got so bad, inmates were exported to a Virginia prison in 1999. But that idea was squashed after two Connecticut inmates died there suspiciously and the state had to pay $2 million to settle wrongful death lawsuits.

A private study released this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts projects the nation's prison population will rise by 200,000 over the next five years. That's three times the rate of the country's population growth, and it will carry a price tag of $27 billion.

Connecticut and Delaware, however, were the only states where no growth is projected in the number of prisoners. Connecticut was even lauded for an enlightened approach that focuses more on prison-diversion and substance-abuse-treatment programs and less on incarceration.

The Pew study follows three consecutive years of declining prison population in Connecticut but also comes on the heels of a troubling, recent spike. State officials consider the increase to more than 19,000 inmates an aberration because it followed aggressive police roundups of gang members in Hartford and New Haven last summer.

Correction Commissioner Theresa Lantz is adamant that the state's strategy of focusing on "front-end services" such as education, supervision and drug/alcohol treatment for ex-offenders will help to quell the overcrowding problem. "If you can give them support in transitioning back into the community, the chances for success are greatly enhanced," she said.

The state's rhetoric and policy on incarceration have evolved over the past 20 years. The DOC's operating budget - from $92.4 million for 5,379 inmates in 1985 to $605 million for 18,902 this year - is one of the state's fastest-growing line items.

It has been eased in the wake of a major summit four years ago at Central Connecticut State University. An unprecedented collaborative approach among lawmakers, court officers, researchers, community leaders and service providers resulted in a new law, "An Act Concerning Prison Overcrowding." The legislature dedicated $13 million in a renewed emphasis on re-entry programs, job training, education and life skills.

Three-quarters of state prisoners do not have high school diplomas; 85 percent have a drug or alcohol problem. About 70 percent of the inmates are considered by correction officials to be nonviolent. The largest bloc of inmates - about 3,500 - is in for probation violations.

In the past 18 months, more than 100 probation officers were hired, reducing caseloads and increasing opportunities for ex-offenders to be directed to training programs and housing. Most probationers had been getting back into trouble four months after their release.

"What we're proving in Connecticut is that when you give probation officers lower caseloads it really is a good investment in public safety because (ex-offenders) remain crime-free for a longer period of time," said Bill Carbone, executive director for court support services.

Efforts also are being made to provide supervised-release programs to people charged with non-violent crimes but who are stuck behind bars awaiting trial because they can't afford to post bail.

Connecticut's remedy for prison overcrowding is attracting national attention: Collaboration and creativity trumps construction.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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