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Connecticut Senate Backs Tougher Penalties For Violent Crimes

By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief

April 24, 2008

Under pressure to respond after two deadly home invasions in the past nine months, the state Senate voted early this morning to strengthen the state's criminal law and allocate $10 million for enhanced crime-fighting.

The bill passed by 32 to 3 at about 2:20 a.m. Thursday after the Senate Democrats withdrew a previous amendment that had prompted a sharply bitter debate with Republicans. The final version gained bipartisan support after lawmakers said the bill would authorize a judge to double the penalty following a second violent crime and triple the penalty after a third offense - up to a maximum of life in prison for a violent felon.

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and legislators have all called for tougher laws after the triple slayings in Cheshire last summer and the abduction, rape, and killing of a frail, cancer-stricken, elderly woman who could not defend herself last month in New Britain.

Republicans and Democrats clashed sharply for the second time of the late-night debate when Republicans offered a "three strikes'' amendment that would force judges to automatically sentence a criminal to life in prison after conviction of a third violent felony. In a relatively close vote, the "three strikes'' amendment failed by 19 to 16 after three moderate Democratic Senators - Joan Hartley of Waterbury, Thomas Gaffey of Meriden and Paul Doyle of Wethersfield - all broke with their caucus and joined with the Republicans to support "three strikes.''

The three Democrats who voted against the overall bill were Senators Toni Harp of New Haven, Edwin A. Gomes of Bridgeport, and Eric Coleman of Bloomfield.

Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Southport said that the "three strikes'' proposal was necessary because some judges were not handing down stiff-enough sentences. A legislative report showed that an average of 103 people have been released from prison every year for the past five years after they finished serving their time for three violent felonies. The average sentence for the third violent felony was 7.9 years in prison, McKinney said, citing the legislative report.

"They have not been punished as severely as we believe they should have,'' he said.

But Democrats ripped the "three strikes'' proposal, saying it was nothing more than a bumper-sticker slogan in an election year.

"This is not a baseball game. This is life,'' said Senator Donald DeFronzo, a New Britain Democrat. "It achieves more as a political sound bite and a sports metaphor than it does as a piece of solid legislation. ... This amendment is virtually valueless.''

Earlier in the evening, the Republicans had verbally pummeled the original bill on the Senate floor, saying that it would actually weaken the state's laws for violent crimes. Following that clash, Democrats -- who hold the majority in the chamber -- suddenly postponed the debate and called for a recess shortly before 11:30 p.m. The chamber reconvened later, and the "three strikes'' debate pushed the vote past 2 a.m. Thursday.

Authorities say that both home invasions were done by men who had recently been released from prison. Much of the previous debate has focused on repeat offenders.

Sen. Andrew McDonald, a Stamford Democrat, began Wednesday's debate by saying violent criminals would be treated much more harshly than under the current law. A "second strike'' under existing law could lead to no prison time at all, but the sentence would be doubled under the bill, he said.

"This is an extraordinary change in our public policy,'' McDonald said, adding that criminals "will be punished in extraordinary ways.''

But Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican, said the original bill was so badly written that it would not accomplish the legislature's tough-on-crime goals and, in fact, would backfire.

"I guess I'm missing something,'' Kissel said. "It actually is weaker addressing persistent dangerous felony offenders. ... This amendment pushes us backward. How can this be tougher on criminals? It's not.''

Out of 21 violent crimes mentioned in the original bill, the maximum prison sentence would actually be reduced for eight of them, Kissel said. That includes second-degree manslaughter with a firearm, among others.

"I think we can do better than this,'' Kissel said. "I don't view it as a get-tough amendment.''

Sen. Sam Caligiuri, a Waterbury Republican, agreed with Kissel and rejected the statements by Democrats that the state already has a "three strikes'' law.

"You will be lying to the people of Connecticut if you tell them'' that the bill includes tough, mandatory minimum sentences, he said. "It's nothing close to what the people of Connecticut'' want.

In addition, the bill calls for prosecutors to state on the record, in court, the specific reasons why they are not using the persistent-felony-offender law to prosecute violent criminals.

Besides streamlining the law, the bill provides money for more prosecutors, public defenders and probation officers, along with expanding the state's "cold case'' unit and providing additional re-entry programs for criminals who are released from prison.

"So many people fail on probation,'' said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat. "So many people fail on parole.''

But McKinney said he was stunned when he read the original five-page bill. Currently, a criminal could receive 40 years in prison for compelling someone to have sex at gunpoint. The bill, crafted by Democrats, would reduce that penalty to 20 years, he said.

"I thought it was a drafting error,'' McKinney said. "This amendment is a retraction of where we are in our law.''

The bill calls for funding in targeted ways: that includes:

$5,492,000 to improve supervision of sex offenders who are on probation, including upgraded lie-detector and global-positioning-system (GPS) technologies. The money also would be used for truancy prevention and helping officials serve warrants on probation violators. $2,147,000 to hire more parole officers and prison guards, along plus expanding the use of GPS technology to track criminals who are on parole. $910,000 for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to provide supportive housing and for improving the women's jail-diversion program, among others. $681,000 to the Division of Criminal Justice for more prosecutors and better computers. $514,000 to hire more employees for the state police major crime squad. $252,000 to the Public Defender Service Commission

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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