The idea of giving some prison inmates an incentive to take part in education, substance abuse treatment and other programs is good and long overdue - as long as the legislature keeps the programs available.
Under the "risk-reduction earned credits" proposal before the General Assembly, inmates could shave up to five days a month off their sentences by taking part in self-improvement programs. The goal is to reduce crime and save money. An earlier earned-time program was dropped in the 1990s as part of a get-tough-on-crime effort.
A dispute erupted Tuesday when a Democratic lawmaker said inmates convicted of murder, home invasion and aggravated sexual assault would be excluded from the new program. House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero pointed out that the bill's language contained no such exclusions. The bill was amended in the Senate Friday. Some categories of dangerous, violent felons need not apply.
Mr. Cafero also criticized a provision of the bill that allows for retroactive credits back to 2006. He has a point; it may violate the state's truth-in-sentencing law.
That aside, prison programs work. Officials have gotten better at assessing the needs of inmates and meeting them. So it makes sense to give inmates a small incentive to learn to read, get a GED, be treated for substance abuse, go to counseling. And it's important that they not be left high and dry when they get out. Robert Farr, former chairman of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, said inmates who successfully complete parole supervision are one-third less likely to reoffend than inmates discharged directly into the community.
After the horrific Cheshire murders in 2007, the legislature made a major investment in programs to lower recidivism. They seem to be working. The inmate population is down from 18,600 in September to 17,510 in May, mostly because fewer criminals are being arrested. Community programs are less expensive than prison but are targets for budget cuts. That is penny-wise and pound-foolish; the average cost to keep someone in a Connecticut prison is more than $42,000 a year.
Most states have some kind of earned credit program for inmates. A well-run program can help Connecticut achieve its goal of closing another prison, making its streets safer and saving real money in the process.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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