Just a day after the horrific home invasion and murder of Mary Ellen Welsh in New Britain last Sunday, Gov. M. Jodi Rell was calling for a "three-strikes" law. This was not leadership, it was posturing. It was a sound-bite solution to a vastly more complex problem.
By later in the week, Mrs. Rell and some legislative leaders broadened the discussion to such things as the rehabilitative capacity of prisons, GPS tracking and inmate re-entry. That's more like it.
Virtually everyone agrees that violent, predatory offenders need to be segregated from society for long periods of time. Mostly, they are. If the suspect in the New Britain killing, Leslie Williams, is found guilty, he will cease to be a public safety problem.
But 95 percent of inmates are eventually released from prison. To give them what they need to make it, and to monitor them for possible reversion to crime, is the real challenge for public safety.
A report earlier this year from the Pew Center on the States revealed that a record 2.3 million Americans — about 1 in 99 adults — are behind bars. Connecticut's 18 prisons and jails are home to nearly 20,000 inmates, also a record.
This is despite pioneering efforts by the state to develop alternatives to incarceration, and a heavy emphasis by Department of Correction Commissioner Theresa Lantz on re-entry programs to prepare inmates for release.
There are gaps in these programs. Transitional services for inmates getting out of prison are available to only about half of those being discharged. By one estimate, the state is short 500 treatment beds for inmates with mental illness or drug addiction.
As a result, prisons have become de facto mental institutions. Nearly 4,000 of the inmates in Connecticut's prisons have been diagnosed with mental illness. Despite the Correction Department's efforts to deal with the problem, mentally ill people are often preyed upon in prison, or act out and are put in near-solitary conditions. Many come out worse than they went in. This is shameful.
Another group, nearly 3,000 inmates, are serving sentences for the sale or possession of illegal drugs. Many of these are addicts, and it becomes more difficult to see the point of sending them to prison.
There is often no housing for sex offenders on probation, so they end up in homeless shelters, where they are hard to monitor. Mr. Williams, the New Britain suspect and a sex offender, had been staying at a shelter.
State leaders made appropriate changes in the penal code in January, following the Cheshire killings last year. Now they should focus on treatment and transitional services, which lower recidivism rates, state studies show.
The state must also invest in programs that will keep people from going to jail in the first place. About 70 percent of inmates have no high school diploma or GED, and about 80 percent report substance abuse problems. Many come from chaotic homes.
We need more programs in teen pregnancy prevention, preschool education and care for the children of inmates. The nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that Connecticut could save $63 million in crime-related costs if the male high school graduation rate was increased by just 5 percent.
These programs will be expensive, but what we're doing now is expensive. The projected operating budget for the state Department of Correction and its 7,000 employees next year is $668 million. Add the cost of courts, police, drug and mental health counselors, social workers and others, and the cost of the current system approaches $1 billion a year.
The Pew report identified Connecticut as one of five states spending more on prisons than state colleges. Three strikes on us.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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