Jodi Rell's ban on parole for violent offenders could make streets more dangerous
By ADAM BULGER, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
October 11, 2007
The Oct. 4 Ex-Offender's Public forum was planned before ex-offenders became a hot issue following a brutal triple-murder in Cheshire in July. The event was organized by Hartford's Commission of Alcohol and Drugs. The public forum, held at Hartford's Learning Corridor, focused on how former prisoners re-integrate into society.
"The parole, the Governor — it's related, but we want to talk about needs and services, not if parole is proper or not," said Reinaldo Rojas, project director of the Metro Prevention Coalition. Rojas's federally funded coalition works with ex-offenders to combat HIV and drug addiction.
Each year, 35,000 prisoners are released from prison in Connecticut. More than half go from the state's prisons into the state's cities.
"Ninety-five percent of prisoners are going to come out. As a community, we need to learn, understand and receive them," Rojas said in his introduction to the forum.
Still, panelists had their opinions about the recent changes to the state's criminal justice system. Earlier this summer, Governor Jodi Rell put a freeze on parole in Connecticut for violent offenders.
Lou Paturco, coordinator for the Hartford-based ex-offender rehabilitation group the New Day Program, spoke at the forum.
"They've frozen the parole, which makes absolutely no sense at all. People who work on the street level know that it's not making the community safer. If anything, it's going to make the community less safe," Paturco said in an interview before the forum, explaining: "You're forcing guys to finish out their sentence in prison, and then they're just dumped out on the street," Paturco said.
Those ex-offenders, Paturco said, are likely to end up in homeless shelters or environments similar to where they initially committed their crimes. He believes that in the long run, the crackdown on parole will make communities less safe.
"One of our clients came to us after being released from a robbery charge. He would have been denied under the new policy because robbery's considered a violent offense. When he came to us, he said that for the first time since he was 15, he had stable housing," Paturco said. "Within two weeks, he was able to get a job. He's had that job for two years. He has a driver's license and a bank account. He has a new circle of friends because he's working. Under the Governor's idea of keeping the community safe, he would have maxed out his time in prison, and would be released without any support in the community."
According to the Connecticut Department of Corrections, 88 percent of inmates have a history of substance abuse. Deborah Henault, of the DOC's addiction services noted that her department was founded a year after the DOC itself was formed, illustrating how interrelated incarceration and substance abuse are. Connecticut's prisons offer treatment programs, which along with other health services, can benefit prisoners.
"People in prison have beds and hospitals. They leave prison pretty healthy," Henault said. The challenge, she said, is to ensure that they stay healthy away from prison.
There were three ex-offenders on the panel — Ken Young, James Butler and Joel Rivera.
Butler, co-chairman of the Clean Slate Committee, was incarcerated in 2001 for an improper weapons sale charge, an offense, he said, that stemmed from his drug problem. Butler appealed for wide-scale change in the way drug offenders are sentenced.
"We need to put away people for things that are heinous. But for drugs? Let's get people some help," Butler said to applause and cheers from the audience. "We have to change our thinking."
Despite his ability to rouse the crowd, Butler wasn't sure that his message got across to the right people.
"I think that the people from the Department of Correction wanted to leave," Butler said. "I said it like it is, and I don't think they were expecting that."
Besides appearing at the forum, Butler's organization — which is composed of ex-offenders — has been actively trying to lobby the state to change the way it treats released prisoners. Along with other members of the Clean Slate Committee and other prison reform groups, Butler met with the governor's Deputy Counsel Anne M. Noble.
The group had requested that the governor ease the restrictions placed on ex-offenders, and include ex-offenders' input on the effects of parole and re-entry policies.
"We let her know that we need to draft some legislation because ex-offenders are being discriminated against," Butler said.
One of their demands has been denied. The group had requested that Governor Rell attend a community meeting they're organizing for Oct. 30 at Hartford's West End Community Center. Rell has indicated she would not attend, but might send a representative.
"I'm trying to be optimistic. There's a lot on the line," Butler said.