After one of the most emotional debates of the legislative session, the Senate voted Friday night to allow the early release of prison inmates for good behavior.
Senators approved a bill that would ban early release for murder and five other violent crimes but allow it for a long list of crimes, including rape, arson and kidnapping. Mandatory minimum sentences would not be shortened.
Lawmakers bitterly debated the issues of crime and punishment for seven hours before approving the bill 21-14, largely along party lines.
The issue exploded this week when House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk charged that the bill would allow the early release of violent felons for good behavior in prison. He called the measure bad public policy because it would apply to inmates who had been convicted of crimes such as an assault on a pregnant woman.
The matter had been buried in a budget-implementation bill that covers a wide variety of topics, including the mergers of various state agencies. Republicans bristled that Democrats had included such a major policy change in what they said was supposed to be a technical bill that implements the details of the state budget.
They accused Democratic legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of "coddling" prisoners. Democrats countered that Connecticut was simply trying to start a program already used in many other states. In New England, only Connecticut and New Hampshire do not have such good-time release programs.
The House passed the bill Tuesday, despite complaints from Republicans. On Friday, the Senate approved an amendment that clarified the House action by banning the good-time credits for major crimes such as murder and capital felony, which carries the death penalty. The amended bill still requires House approval before the regular legislative session ends June 8.
Under the early-release policy, inmates could earn 60 days of good time a year and could eventually cut about three years off a 20-year sentence.
Inmates entitled to early release would include those convicted of rape, kidnapping, arson, first-degree manslaughter, assault of a pregnant woman, first-degree assault, second-degree strangulation, first-degree threatening, promoting prostitution, having sex with someone under the age of 13, and assault of a blind or disabled person, Republicans said.
Only six crimes are exempted from early release under Friday's amendment: murder, felony murder, arson murder, capital felony, home invasion and first-degree aggravated sexual assault.
An impassioned Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Fairfield decried the Democrats' characterizations of the amendment.
"If you are a rapist sentenced to 10 years, you are entitled to early release under this bill," McKinney said. "That is a fact. That is not a nonviolent crime."
"I don't care if every other state in the country does it," McKinney said. "We should not allow violent criminals to get out of jail early. Period."
"We are coddling prisoners. Violent criminals," McKinney said, his voice rising.
But Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney of New Haven said the amendment covered many of the concerns that Republicans had articulated on the Senate floor.
"Many, if not most, of our most serious crimes do carry minimum mandatory terms," Looney said. "There are a number of provisions in our statutes."
Sen. Eric Coleman, the Democratic co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee, discussed the "risk-reduction earned credits" and clarified which offenses and crimes would be eligible for the good-time credits.
Overall, 64 offenses have mandatory minimum sentences, and those could not be changed by the credits. For example, if a criminal was sentenced to eight years with a mandatory minimum of five years, that criminal would still be required to serve at least five years under the bill. That provision was a key part of the fix to the bill.
"The amendment is a reasonable amendment to put us in line with what most other states in the country are doing," Looney said. "Mere good conduct alone without some initiative toward rehabilitation will not be enough to earn credit. ... In many ways, this amendment gives the [correction] commissioner more control over inmates who are incarcerated."
The amendment "strengthens the hand of corrections officials," Looney said, noting that virtually all prisoners - except the most violent - eventually get released at some point.
Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island all have similar, good-behavior programs for certain crimes, Looney said. Rhode Island's is the most lenient on inmates, while Massachusetts has the toughest policy on inmates.
"We will be joining a national model," Looney said. "It is not lenient. It is part of the national mainstream."
The determination of the credits would be made by the correction commissioner and a committee that evaluates inmate behavior.
Coleman, D-Bloomfield, rejected Republicans' complaints. "Wholesale releases of prisoners is not going to occur tomorrow," he said.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, disagreed. Kissel, a member of the judiciary committee for the past 17 years, represents a district that has six prisons - in Enfield, Somers and Suffield.
Since the good-time credits would date to April 2006, Kissel said, the prison doors would soon fling open and inmates would walk out.
"It's retroactive. What kind of nonsense is that?" Kissel asked, his voice rising on the Senate floor. "This is a money-saving bill. This isn't good public policy. This has nothing to do with public safety. ... What in the world are we doing making this retroactive?"
"They don't deserve getting released from prison early," Kissel said. "I don't care what classes they take."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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