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Outside Prison Walls



March 03, 2009

The year before Theresa C. Lantz became correction commissioner in 2003, the annual increase in the state's prison population was projected to continue unabated, as it had for 20 years.

If the estimate had held, the state could have needed up to three more prisons by now, each at a cost of about $150 million. Lantz hasn't asked for one.

"I don't want to build prisons," Lantz said Monday. "I want to build communities."

During the first year of her tenure, the prison population dropped 4.2 percent - the largest decrease in the country - as Lantz retooled the system from one that emphasized incarceration to one that prepared inmates to return to their communities.

That approach was endorsed by a report released Monday by the nonprofit Pew Center on the States at a time when one in 31 adults in the country is in prison, on parole or on probation.

Despite the get-tough sentences enacted in the 1980s and '90s, increasingly high incarceration rates have failed to significantly reduce recidivism. Prisons now cost the country about $47 billion a year, a 303 percent increase over 20 years.

It costs an average of $79 a day to house an inmate in prison, compared to $3.42 per day to supervise those on probation and $7.47 a day for those on parole.

"Most states are facing serious budget deficits," said Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center. "Every single one of them should be making smart investments in community corrections that will help them cut costs and improve outcomes."

Parole, probation and other community-based programs have the potential to save taxpayer dollars while improving public safety by reducing recidivism, according to the Pew report. Supporters of such programs are quick to say that there are violent offenders who should be locked up for a long time, but many inmates could return to the community with careful screening, close monitoring and support programs.

Lantz said the vast majority of inmates will eventually be released. Parole allows her department to continue to work with them as they re-enter the community rather than have them just walk out the door on the last day of their sentence.

"I really believe there's a population that is incarcerated that we can transition into the community," Lantz said.

Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center, said some states are using sophisticated systems to sort inmates based on their risk to public safety, then tailoring intervention and monitoring schemes to meet the need. Technology such as GPS systems and rapid drug testing are also increasingly being deployed.

There are risks in the approach for politicians fearful of appearing soft on criminals.

"It's a lot easier to keep throwing money at prisons," Gelb said.

Lantz, after reducing the prison population for the first four years of her tenure, saw the landscape change in a flash when two parolees were charged with the brutal murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters in their Cheshire home in July 2007.

Another incident a short time later in which a parolee was involved in a carjacking prompted Gov. M. Jodi Rell to temporarily suspend the parole of inmates convicted of violent crimes.

A task force created by the governor eventually drafted recommendations that Lantz said have improved the system. The parole board, previously hobbled by a lack of detailed information on inmates, now gets police reports, court transcripts and even juvenile records.

Rell's parole ban was lifted after four months, but was a factor in the state's prison population's hitting an all-time high of 19,894 inmates on Feb. 1, 2008.

Lantz said Rell and the legislature resisted overreacting and provided the resources necessary to do the job. More parole officers were hired, the number of halfway house beds was increased and additional monitoring technology was purchased.

The number of inmates is dropping again, hovering at about 19,000.

"The reforms and systems and programs we've put in place are working," Lantz said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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