On the day that she signed a bipartisan bill to strengthen criminal laws after last summer's triple slaying in Cheshire, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell clashed sharply Friday with Democrats over whether they are soft on crime.
Since the entire legislature is up for re-election this year, Democrats have been concerned that they will be painted by Republicans as weak on crime.
The issue bubbled over after Democrats who control both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted down Republican amendments that called for mandatory life in prison for criminals who are convicted of three violent felonies. The Democratic version passed and Republicans have vowed to continue pushing the issue when the regular legislative session begins Feb. 6.
After being asked several times by reporters for her views on Democratic legislators, Rell finally repeated the issue before giving her answer.
"Are they soft on crime? Just because they didn't pass the three strikes bill?" Rell asked. "I would perceive that as not being in tune with the people of Connecticut, and they want you to be tougher on crime. That is not tough on crime."
"So that's a yes," said a newspaper reporter in the front row.
"Yeah," Rell responded.
Those comments ricocheted quickly around the Capitol, causing an immediate response by Democrats.
"As an original sponsor of Connecticut's three strikes persistent offender law, I'm offended by the governor's comments, and frankly it is sad to see such pandering," said House Speaker James Amann, a conservative Democrat from Milford. "It was our three strikes [version] that is the prosecutors' choice and overwhelmingly passed in a bipartisan vote. It's workable, responsible, and prosecutors will use it. The governor's proposal may have sounded tough, but doesn't work."
Rell's version stated that any criminal convicted of three violent felonies — such as murder, rape, kidnapping, manslaughter, arson or robbery — should be automatically sentenced to life in prison without the chance of release. After 30 years, a judge would review the sentence and would have the option of releasing the prisoner.
The Democratic version did not have a 30-year review and allows for judicial discretion in setting the sentence. Each side claimed that its version was tougher on crime.
Although the Republicans' "three strikes" amendment was rejected, the legislature this week passed the 43-page crime bill, 36-0, in the Senate and 126-12 in the House. That bill provides for up to 25 years in prison for the newly classified crime of "home invasion" and pays for better computers that will replace the highly disjointed system that currently exists across law enforcement agencies. The Democratic version of three strikes — which Republican Sen. Sam Caligiuri said is not a three strikes bill at all — passed as part of the overall bill that updated the state's existing "persistent felony offender" law.
"It's the toughest crime-fighting bill we've seen in Connecticut," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, the highest-ranking senator.
Rell made her initial comments in the morning during her traditional press conference following the State Bond Commission meeting. Only a few hours later, she was surrounded by about 20 police officers and both Republican and Democratic legislators in a bill-signing ceremony at Superior Court in Hartford for the criminal justice reforms related to the Cheshire slayings. Rell and lawmakers have been working on the legislation since the deaths of Jennifer Hawke Petit and her two daughters in their home in Cheshire on July 23.
Two longtime criminals — Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky — were out on parole at the time of the killings, and they are facing the death penalty after being charged with multiple counts of capital felony in the Cheshire case.
Even though the General Assembly passed the bill in special session, the battle over crime is far from over. Caligiuri, who represents part of Cheshire and is among the most outspoken proponents of the "three strikes" bill, said Friday that he will continue introducing the bill until it passes. Rell agrees.
"People in Connecticut want us to be tough on crime, and I believe they want a real, workable three strikes bill," Rell said as she was surrounded by police officers. "Some will argue that the bill that we passed accomplishes that through the persistent offender statutes. I am not convinced that that is the case. ... We'll bring it up again. We'll debate it again. And maybe we'll pass it."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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