Two years ago, the legislature, together with Gov. M. Jodi Rell, enacted a series of significant criminal justice reforms.
In the aftermath of the horrifying murders in Cheshire in 2007, policy makers in all three branches of government, on both state and local levels, achieved consensus around two key goals: Repeat violent offenders should be identified, convicted and sentenced to lifelong terms of imprisonment; and nonviolent, less serious offenders should be punished in ways that are cost-effective and prevent crime.
Today, I can report mixed results. First, the good news: Frontline law enforcement personnel have focused their energy on repeat violent offenders and longer sentences are being imposed in our courts. Nonviolent offenders are being diverted to alternative punishments. The stateís total prison population has dropped from a high of 19,900 in February 2008 to a low of about 18,100 today. The inmate count stood at approximately 18,800 just prior to the Cheshire murders. Our prison population is now at its lowest point since 2006 and trending downward. Connecticutís decision to focus its efforts on violent offenders is yielding the intended results.
Now, the disturbing news: Our stateís budget crisis has put many of the 2008 reforms at risk. For example, budget cuts ordered by the governor have blocked a 2008 budgetary requirement that additional prosecutors be hired and dedicated to career criminal cases. It is worthy to note that in spite of this cut, additional public defenders were actually hired.
The centerpiece of the reform effort, a state-of-the-art criminal justice communication and information sharing network, is pending as it awaits an endorsement from the governor in the form of dedicated bonding and budget funds. Although there is a plan in place for its implementation, there has been no decision by the governor to proceed to make it operational in the near term.
Keep in mind that both the governorís and the legislatureís post-Cheshire murder analyses pointed directly to the lack of communication among criminal justice agencies as a central fault in the system.
In the case of one of the two murder suspects, the Department of Correction and the Board of Pardons and Paroles were not made aware of the well-documented, high-risk assessment that almost certainly would have affected the manner and timing of [a Cheshire murder defendantís] release and supervision, which was the result of a lack of interagency file sharing that should have occurred. If a choice must be made, this information system should be priority number one.
There were a number of other significant reforms suggested by frontline criminal justice professionals and then adopted by the Connecticut General Assembly. These included a statewide automated victim notification system; secure sex offender beds for rapists being released from prison upon the completion of their sentences; expanded use of global positioning technology for high-risk offenders; lowered offender caseloads for parole and probation officers; an expanded network of treatment options for nonviolent offenders in order to free up expensive, secure prison cells for violent offenders; more mental health facilities for nonviolent offenders with mental health issues, including many veterans returning from battle and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome; and a complete overhaul of procedures at the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
All of these have been partially addressed, but remain in jeopardy due to the budget crisis.
Our challenge going forward is to keep our promise to the professionals who work in the criminal justice system and to deliver a smart, efficient and effective public safety product to the stateís citizens.
We have made progress. We have shifted our focus to violent crimes and repeat offenders, and Connecticutís serious crime rate is down significantly compared to 2006.
To sustain this trend, we must continue to reinvest part of the savings in the very initiatives and programs that have worked. To do otherwise risks a return to a system marked by huge caseloads, overwhelmed police, prosecutors, probation and parole officers, overcrowded prisons and poor results.
The legislatureís Judiciary Committee will lead these discussions as we begin the 2010 session of the General Assembly, and we invite every citizen to contribute ideas and suggestions.