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After Petit Slayings, It Takes Longer To Get Out On Parole

DAVE ALTIMARI and MATTHEW KAUFFMAN

July 26, 2009

Violent offenders are spending more time in prison before earning parole, following changes made in the two years since the brutal slaying of three members of a Cheshire family exposed inadequacies in the state's prisoner-release system.

"If somebody were to look at our process today and compare it to what it was prior to Cheshire, they'd see a remarkable change," said Robert Farr, the chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. "Because of that awful case there has been huge changes to the system."

Now board members are flooded with paperwork, and case files are two or three times the size they were in the past, according to Farr.

Board members routinely read pre-sentencing reports, juvenile records and transcripts of sentencing hearings to ensure they don't miss key details, Farr said. Parole board members acknowledged that they approved the early release of Joshua Komisarjevsky, one of the suspects in the Cheshire case, without ever reviewing court records that would have shown a judge had described him as a "cold, calculating predator."

Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes were both paroled following routine administrative hearings a few months before they allegedly broke into the home of William Petit and Jennifer Hawke-Petit in July 2007. William Petit was severely beaten and Jennifer Hawke-Petit and daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were killed. The two girls were burned alive as Komisarjevsky and Hayes fled the home, police said.

The two men are awaiting trials that could begin early next year. Both face the death penalty.

An analysis by The Courant of parole data provided by the state shows that since the Petit killings, convicts in prison on 12 of 14 felonies ranging from burglary and robbery to assault to selling drugs have served a greater portion of their sentences before being released on parole, compared with prisoners granted parole on the same charges prior to the Cheshirecase.

For example, before the Cheshire killings, prisoners released on parole following convictions for selling narcotics served an average of 58 percent of their sentences. Since the killings, they have served 68 percent before release. Prisoners convicted of second-degree burglary and later released on parole served 69 percent of their sentences before the Cheshire case and almost 74 percent since.

The Courant examined 14 felonies for which at least 10 prisoners have been released on parole since the Cheshire killings. Of those, only two showed prisoners post-Cheshire serving a lower percentage of their sentences before release manslaughter and risk of injury to a minor. For manslaughter cases, however, prisoners released since the Cheshire case actually spent more time in prison, because those inmates had longer sentences on average than those who came before the parole before Cheshire.

"Often times, before, we had very little information about a defendant and what had happened in court," Farr said. "Now we can do a much more thorough review of who to let out and of identifying potential problem cases."

Following the Cheshire killings, Gov. M. Jodi Rell formed a commission to review the parole system and politicians called for a moratorium on early release that lasted for months.

But people already in the system knew it was broken months before the Petit killings.

"It was pretty clear to both Bob [Farr] and I that the board wasn't getting the information it needed to make proper decisions," Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane said in an interview this week.

"We were in the process of figuring out how to get them more information when the Cheshire homicides happened and showed everyone that the system wasn't working," Kane said.

When Komisarjevsky was sentenced to nine years in prison for previous burglaries in 2002, the judge referred to him as a "cold, calculated predator." Prosecutor Ronald Dearstyne described how Komisarjevsky purchased night goggles and always wore latex gloves when burglarizing homes. In his 15 years as a prosecutor, Dearstyne said, he "couldn't remember a person who has laid out such a plan to this degree, where he would use night goggles."

Dearstyne ended his plea for a lengthy sentence by saying, "If we can't go home and feel safe at night, where can we feel safe?"

That information was not available to the three-member board that paroled Komisarjevsky in April 2007.

Hayes was paroled a month later, despite the fact he had failed a drug test while living in a Hartford halfway house where he first met Komisarjevsky. Even Hayes, who had 26 separate prison stints, expressed surprise that he was paroled, telling a friend at the halfway house, "I don't know how the hell they let me out of jail, but I wasn't going to say 'no.'"

Following the killings, state officials acknowledged they had not been following a law passed in 1997 that required prosecutors to send the state Board of Pardons and Paroles a sentencing transcript for each inmate jailed more than two years.

Kane's office immediately started getting copies of sentencing transcripts and providing them to the parole board. Court officials also now put any available pre-sentence reports into a database that both state Department of Correction officials and the parole board can access. In addition, juvenile records are also made available.

Farr estimates that close to 95 percent of sentencing transcripts are now available and roughly 50 percent of pre-sentencing reports.

If Komisarjevsky's previous parole case on burglary charges were heardtoday, parole board members would have access to all of his court documents, although both Kane and Farr cautioned that parole might still have been granted because Komisarjevsky did not have a violent history.

"What a judge said may be helpful or not helpful in making a decision but what is just as important is the documents that led the judge to make the statement that he was a predator in the first place," Kane said.

Catching up on copying transcripts and obtaining other documents has created a backlog of cases. Farr estimates there are about 3,000 prisoners waiting for parole hearings.

New Haven Public Defender Thomas Ullmann, past president of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said he is concerned about the number of backlogged cases. Ullmann is representing Hayes.

With 19,000 prisoners in the system, Ullman said, the size of the backlog means about 16 percent of the state's prisoners are waiting for parole.

"I am chronically getting calls from frustrated inmates who have been unable to have a parole hearing because their records aren't available," Ullmann said.

Farr said the logistics of searching for older files slows the process down.

"We'll be catching up with those cases for at least another year and a half," he said.

State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D- East Haven and the co-chairman of the judiciary committee, said that although progress has been made, many initiatives that were included in the crime bills approved after the Cheshire killings have not been implemented.

The state budgeted $27.4 million in 2009 for new programs and to create a Criminal Justice Information System but spent about $16.4 million, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis.

The positions not funded include seven new prosecutors to handle repeat offender cases and 15 court clerks to accelerate entering files.

State officials are hoping to complete the Criminal Justice Information System, which will allow police reports to be filed electronically, making it easier for prosecutors to share records with correction and parole officials once a case is adjudicated. Currently, most police departments file paper reports with the prosecutor's office. After a case ends, some reports get saved, others don't.

"Right now our technology system is back in the 1960s compared to private businesses," Kane said. "We don't have the ability right now to receive or share police reports electronically and that is no way to run a system."

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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