Some Vow To Press For Measure For Persistent, Violent Offenders
Staff And Wire Reports
March 20, 2008
A move to sentence violent criminals to life in prison after a third offense hit a snag Wednesday, despite calls for tougher sentencing laws from the family of a woman who was killed along with her two daughters during a home invasion in Cheshire last year.
The legislation died in the judiciary committee on a 25-16 vote, but Republicans vowed to keep pushing for a mandatory minimum sentencing bill for dangerous, repeat offenders during the current legislative session.
Opponents said the revamped "three-strikes-and-you're-out" proposal was deceiving because it would not automatically require a life sentence for a third violent offense. The bill still gave prosecutors the discretion to decide whether to charge someone under the law.
And committee co-chairman Rep. Michael Lawlor said prosecutors have told lawmakers they would rarely use such a law.
"The bottom line is, this is very misleading," said Lawlor, an East Haven Democrat.
But Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell sharply rejected Lawlor's statements in unusually harsh tones.
"Chairman Lawlor has been saying that for months, frankly, that it doesn't do anything, that it's really a show only," Rell told reporters at the state Capitol. "Well, if that's all it is, then let's pass the bill and make sure that the people get what they're calling for, which is let's get the criminals off the street. And when you have committed three violent felonies, that you are sent to prison for the rest of your life. If he says it doesn't do anything and it really makes no difference, then pass the bill and see if it really does accomplish anything."
When told by a New Haven television reporter that no prosecutors have come to Lawlor's committee to ask for the bill, Rell responded, "The governor asked for it."
Proponents of three-strikes, mostly minority Republicans and Rell, plan to amend other bills with similar language before the session ends at midnight on May 7. But at least one lawmaker acknowledges it will be difficult to pass it this year.
"Things get done when leadership sits in a room with a commitment to hammering something out that everyone can live with on an issue," said Sen. Sam Caligiuri, R-Waterbury. "That's not happening yet. And until that happens, it's going to be an uphill battle."
There were four three-strikes bills proposed this session, including one from Rell. The committee, controlled by majority Democrats, decided to call one up for a vote. Republicans said the bill would have been a helpful tool for prosecutors.
"You would have this hanging over the head of a particularly bad actor out there who has committed dramatically horrific crimes," said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield.
Kissel said the legislation would help persuade criminals to plead guilty to "some real hard time" rather than face life in prison.
The push for the stronger law stems from the July home invasion in Cheshire, in which two paroled burglars are accused of breaking into the home of Dr. William Petit Jr., and killing his wife and two daughters. While the bills under consideration would not have affected the two suspects, members of the Petit family still testified last week in favor of mandatory life sentences for a third violent offense.
"The three-strikes bill is about those who have offended society in a violent way three times. They just do not get it," said Dr. Petit's sister, Johanna Petit Chapman.
Connecticut already has a law on the books addressing repeat offenders. During a special session in January, in which many Cheshire-related reforms were passed, lawmakers tinkered with the law. They passed a version that removed a requirement that a judge make certain findings before imposing up to a life sentence for third-time offenders. That law took effect March 1.
Sen. Andrew McDonald, the other committee co-chairman, said lawmakers should wait and see whether that works.
"We are trying to fix something that we don't know as yet is broken," said McDonald, a Stamford Democrat.
The bill's defeat drew strong criticism from the chamber's top Republican, House GOP leader Lawrence J. Cafero Jr., who proposed one of the three-strikes proposals this session.
"The public now knows that the Democratic lawmakers who thwarted the public outcry over this tragedy also refused to heed the pleas of the family who have repeatedly called for mandatory life sentences for dangerous, repeat criminals," said Cafero, R-Norwalk.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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