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Giving Prisoners Time Off for Good Behavior Could Reduce Recidivism, and Help Solve Some of These Budget Problems

They shall be released.

By Gregory B. Hladky

March 14, 2011

Not everything about a state budget crisis is bad. The one we’re in right now could help state lawmakers overcome their paranoia about being called “soft on crime” long enough to pass reforms that can cut prison populations, reduce costs and help prepare inmates for real life.

Even more astonishing, legislation to offer inmates reduced sentences for completing or participating in things like drug treatment or educational programs could end up being truly bipartisan. Originally proposed by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration, it’s being revived by Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy.

“It just makes sense on a lot of different policy levels,” says David McGuire, a staff attorney with the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union who testified this week in support of the reforms.

State House Republican Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, Jr., says he’s for the plan and isn’t worried about flak from anti-crime crusaders. “I’m very much in favor of it,” he says, with the condition that any early release for inmates be strictly tied to their accomplishing something concrete while in prison.

Connecticut is the only state in New England, and one of a very few nationwide, that doesn’t offer prison inmates some way to reduce their sentences by participating in educational, drug treatment, volunteer or work-training programs.

National studies show incentive programs can cut prison costs and reduce the rate at which convicts end up back in prison after being released.

Once upon a time, Connecticut prison inmates could get “time off for good behavior.” The system became notorious because almost every prisoner qualified for it. Critics complained it made a mockery of judicial sentences. Basically, if you didn’t kill somebody while in prison, you could get your jail time slashed.

“The way it was back then, Connecticut had four different ‘good time’ scenarios,” says Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s top criminal justice adviser. “When all was said and done, it took 40 percent off a sentence, right off the bat.” He says it was a way for corrections officials to reduce prison overcrowding by letting inmates out early to free up badly needed beds.

In 1994, Lawlor (a state lawmaker at the time) helped lead the charge that ended with repeal of all Connecticut’s “good time” programs.

It was an era when getting tough on criminals was a surefire political bet.

Connecticut also toughened up its parole and inmate furlough systems, the latest change coming after parolees Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes were charged in 2007 with the infamous Cheshire home-invasion murders. In 2008, the legislature took away the corrections commissioner’s ability to place inmates on planned re-entry furloughs, a system reform advocates argued helped inmates prepare for life on the outside.

Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that keeping more inmates in prison longer had some ugly consequences.

Prison overcrowding became worse. Costly new prisons had to be built or old ones expanded; classrooms and program rooms were turned into dormitories. The lack of good-time incentives also eliminated one of the tools corrections officials could use to manage inmates. If there was no reward for being good, for taking part in school or work programs, why do it?

Other states had similar problems, and they turned to a variety of incentive programs to lower prison populations and costs.

According to a July 2009 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 31 states then had incentive programs “that reduce the costs of incarceration and help offenders succeed when they return to the community.”

Inmates in Colorado, California and Louisiana can earn time off their sentences for getting disaster-relief and conservation training. In 16 states, you can reduce your sentence by completing vocational programs; 14 states offer time off for participation in mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

New York’s corrections department estimated their time-off incentive programs saved the state $369 million between 1997 and 2006. Washington state approved an expanded inmate incentive system in 2003 and officials there calculated it saved taxpayers about $7,200 per offender.

Most states target their incentive programs toward non-violent types, like people busted for smalltime drug possession and other low-level crimes.

“There are a lot of people serving time in prison who don’t need to be there,” McGuire says. Getting those folks out from behind bars as soon as possible can improve conditions for other inmates, freeing up prison space and giving corrections officials more time to work with convicts who are really working to help themselves.

McGuire also says fewer inmates, along with giving inmates real reasons to behave and take part in productive programs, would make the whole system safer for inmates and guards.

Those studies in other states also indicate that these incentive and early-release programs can help former inmates stay out of prison once they’re released. The NCSL report found that about 31 percent of New York inmates involved in the early-release program ended up back behind bars, compared to 39 percent who had served out their full terms.

Two years ago, then-Corrections Commissioner Theresa C. Lantz reported to lawmakers in this state that there was “a growing body of evidence” showing that such programs worked. Her report included several different options for creating an earned-time-off program for Connecticut inmates.

Those proposals went nowhere.

Cafero believes they got lost in the shuffle of the 2009 version of our ongoing budget crisis. “When you’re in a budget battle, it’s like the whole world stops,” Cafero says. “Everybody’s creative juices and great ideas just stop. ... It was another casualty of that budget crisis.”

Lantz, who served under Rell’s Republican administration, turned up again as a key member of Malloy’s panel of experts charged with recommending public safety policies for the new governor. (In addition to providing inmates incentives to work for their early release, Malloy is calling for home confinement for some non-violent offenders and drunk drivers, legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot.)

Lawlor and others believe connecting early-release incentives to specific goals and accomplishments for inmates is an idea that can get through this year without a lot of crap about coddling criminals. The fact that it might save this money-hungry state millions of dollars is likely to provide a lot of momentum.

“Anybody who’s afraid of taking a position on this because they don’t want to be seen as soft on crime, well, give me a break!” says Cafero.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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