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A Big Mistake Of Correction

Rick Green

April 08, 2008

On a recent day, 17 out of the 100 residents at the city-run Stewart B. McKinney Shelter in Hartford were registered sex offenders.

They're part of the weekly wave of prisoners the Department of Correction discharges to our cities around the state, many of whom lack a job, a place to live or any notion of how to rekindle a lawful existence.

Last week, one sex offender a prisoner who served a decade and ended up clueless in Hartford sexually assaulted and killed a New Britain woman, police say. How dumb is this: We spend a half million bucks to keep Leslie Williams locked up for 10 years and then we won't spend a few thousand more to make sure he re-enters society successfully.

You want to get tough on crime? Make sure the people getting out of jail don't commit crimes again.

Frequently, city police and social workers have no idea these ex-cons are moving to town. Last month, New Haven blasted the state for "dumping" prisoners in the city, estimating that as many as two dozen former inmates are left off every week without an adequate plan for housing, a job or counseling.

Gee, I wonder if these citizens are going to resume a life of crime or become baristas at Starbucks.

"A municipality should know who is coming in," said Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, who is asking state legislators for a law that will force the state to reveal when an ex-con is moving to town. "The numbers are overwhelming. We end up having to deal with it. It becomes a public safety issue.

"It can't be just 'Good luck and don't come back.' These folks are put in a no-win situation."

Last year 1,966 departing inmates listed Hartford as home, another 1,375 were New Haven residents, Bridgeport had 1,286 and Waterbury had 1,089.

"What we see is 80 percent of our suspects in homicide and shootings are either ex-felons or on probation or parole," New Haven Mayor John DeStefano explained.

"The thing that is more certain than anything else is that these guys are going to come out of prison. Where are these people going to live?"

It took a sex offender moving to Southbury last year a town that had seven residents in 2007 released from jail for this issue to wake up our elected leaders.

Now that was a real disaster, one that merited the governor and attorney general getting personally involved. When middle-class white voters are in danger, we've got a problem.

Instead of repeating sound-bite demands for a three-strikes-and-you're-out law, Gov. Rell ought to spend more time listening to Theresa Lantz, her innovative and tough correction commissioner.

"We see 76 percent [of the prison population] with addiction issues. We see 70 percent with no GED or high school. We see them coming in with no sustainable good employment. A lot of them are coming in homeless.

"Our primary responsibility is to protect the public," Lantz told me. "I also feel that if we are to really talk about public safety and protecting the public than I, as a commissioner of corrections, need to look at how we transition the individuals back into the community."

Earlier this year, as part of the governor's task force on sentencing and parole, a subcommittee chaired by Lantz compiled a detailed package of recommendations to improve the re-entry of prisoners into the community.

Legislators and the governor ought to take a closer look at these proposals before their next knee-jerk demand for a three-strikes law.

Building strong communities and providing employment, Lantz said, "is a far more effective way to improve public safety than continuing to build prisons."

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.
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