As state legislators prepare for Tuesday's special session on criminal justice reforms, Republicans and Democrats are still battling over a "three strikes" law and struggling over how to create a new law against home invasions.
The two sides have been clashing despite a show of bipartisan unity two weeks ago as they stood together in a joint appearance with Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell to call for reforms in the aftermath of the triple slayings last summer in Cheshire.
House Speaker James Amann said the two sides had agreed on 95 percent of the items, and the Republicans interpreted that statement to mean that the other 5 percent was the "three strikes and you're out" proposal. Republicans have been calling for an automatic sentence of life imprisonment for any criminal who is convicted of three violent felonies, but some Democrats have rejected that concept as an overly simplistic solution that would take sentencing discretion away from judges.
Besides failing to agree on the details of a three strikes law, Republicans and Democrats also cannot agree on whether a strengthened law would lead to a minor or major increase in the state's prison population, which has been nearing all-time highs for months.
House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk said he wants to avoid a false impression that lawmakers agree on all aspects of the crime legislation.
"I've heard a lot of talk on the radio from Democrats that this was going to be a Kumbaya thing," Cafero said. "We're going to [offer] a three strikes amendment. It depends which one."
Cafero and Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Fairfield are both concerned about a loophole in a 34-page draft bill concerning the wording of the proposed home-invasion law. Currently, the invasion of an occupied home is not considered a violent crime, and lawmakers in both parties want to change that. The Republicans say a loophole in the draft bill would prevent prosecutors from pursuing a charge of home invasion if the criminal claimed that he did not know the house was occupied.
Derek Slap, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said Williams agrees with Republicans that wording in the draft bill should be changed.
"The Senate president feels strongly that if you break into somebody's home, and they are home, it's home invasion," Slap said. "In addition, he doesn't have a problem with the governor's proposal that if you break into somebody's home at night — whether they are home or not — that's home invasion."
Concerning the disagreements over whether to enact a stronger "three strikes" law, Slap said that is "part of the negotiations."
Adam Liegeot, a spokesman for the governor, said Rell still supports the three strikes law and is "optimistic that an agreement can be reached" on the overall bill by Tuesday.
The review of criminal laws was prompted by the July 23 killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, during a break-in and arson at their home. Two longtime criminals who were out on parole at the time — Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky — were charged with six counts of capital felony in the homicides and could face the death penalty.
Wednesday will mark the six-month anniversary of the slayings, and some legislators have complained that the General Assembly has not moved quickly enough to enact new laws designed to prevent similar tragedies.
Rell called upon legislators to sharply limit their scope during the special session to strengthening criminal laws and then wait until after the regular session starts on Feb. 6 to tackle the many prison issues that require spending state money.
The draft bill on the response to the Cheshire tragedy calls for spending $6.2 million in the current fiscal year and $17.69 million during the fiscal year that begins in July. The money would cover a variety of items, including residential treatment centers for sex offenders, expanded global positioning system [GPS] monitoring of parolees, improved computers, and the creation of five full-time positions for the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
As legislators prepare for the session, the state is facing an overflowing prison population that is near an all-time high. The state's 18 prisons and jails are filled to capacity overall, but conditions are worse at some facilities, according to the guards who patrol the prisons.
As of Friday, the state's prison population was 19,736 — up from about 5,400 in 1985, before the state built more than 10 new prisons.
As a backdrop for the Cheshire debate, a long-running issue between the Department of Correction and the unions representing correction officers continues over crowding in the prisons.
"We have over 800 inmates sleeping in unconventional areas — dorms, closets, bigger utility closets with three or four people sleeping on the floor," said David Testa, president of Local 387 of the correction officers' union. "We think 800 inmates sleeping on the floor is an emergency. ... The system we have presently isn't working."
Testa concedes that the union and prison officials often disagree about the statistics, but he added, "800 or 600 — it's still too many."
In the nomenclature of the Department of Correction, the inmates in "nontraditional housing" are considered as the "overflow" of prisoners who do not have traditional beds. To the union, that means criminals sleeping in plastic sleds on gymnasium floors and in converted closets.
Brian Garnett, a spokesman for the correction department, says the statements by the union are inaccurate.
"It's not true. No one sleeps on the floor," Garnett said. "They are in a temporary bed — a sled. No one is sleeping in a closet. No one is sleeping in the kitchen. It could be a gymnasium. It could be a chow hall."
By law, the state's 15 prisons and three county jails must accept all criminals who are sent by the state's judges. Though the situation in state prisons has gained more publicity in the aftermath of the Cheshire slayings, Garnett says it is not unusual for the prisons to be reaching overflow status.
"We are very adept at this. We've done it for years," Garnett said. "[The prisoners] remain safe. They remain secure. They remain humane."
As of Friday, Garnett said, the state had 19,940 fixed beds and 785 overflow beds — compared with an overflow figure by the union of about 1,000. A September order by Rell to suspend parole for violent criminals caused the state's prison population to increase, and more than 50 new staff members were authorized by the governor to deal with the overflow, officials said.
Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, an East Haven Democrat who is co-chairman of the legislature's influential judiciary committee, tells another story. He says there is only one sink for a group of 55 prisoners at the Whalley Avenue jail in New Haven. Inmates in that group use it to wash their hands and their clothes, Lawlor says.
The same 55 criminals, he says, regularly stand in line to use one toilet — in a jail that is sometimes hot and stifling with a powerful stench.
That was the scene Lawlor saw two months ago during a tour of the jail that houses prisoners who are awaiting trials on criminal charges ranging from shoplifting to murder. The restive inmates can be ornery, and the crowded conditions make matters worse, Lawlor says.
"Some are mentally ill," Lawlor said. "Some are HIV positive. Some have tuberculosis. Everybody's mad and angry. No privacy. No quiet."
The 55 inmates sleep on the gymnasium floor in plastic sleds resembling those used to carry injured hikers down a mountainside. The rows of sleds are lined up, almost touching each other, he said.
"That's what's going on," said Lawlor, an attorney and legislator for 22 years. "The sink is the size of a dinner plate. They wash their clothes in there."
Garnett said he was on the same tour as Lawlor and saw it differently. The inmates can always use the facilities in another section of the jail.
"Those guys in the gym do not have only one toilet and one urinal," Garnett said. "They are always provided access" to other areas.
Larry Dorman, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 4, which represents nearly 5,000 correction employees, said it isn't right that inmates are living in gymnasiums, closets and former office space.
"It's not how inmates should be housed," Dorman said. "It makes the situation more volatile. Something's got to give here. It's an unacceptable situation."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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