Here’s the quote that has caused so much consternation at the capitol over the last 24 hours:
“An inmate may earn risk reduction credit for adherence to the inmate’s offender accountability plan and for participation in eligible programs or activities, good conduct and obedience to institutional rules as designated by the commissioner.”
That language was included in a so-called budget implementer – legislation enacting the new state budget – passed last night by the House of Representatives.
Democrats and Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy’s administration argue the purpose is simple – establish in Connecticut a policy whereby inmates can cut time off their sentences by participating in programs that will help prevent them from committing future crimes and returning to jail.
Republicans insist that, as written, the bill allows inmates to reduce the length of their sentences just for being on good behavior AND also applies to some of the most dangerous criminals.
That debate began last evening and continued into today, as frustrated Republicans sought to slow down the passage of unrelated bills in the House and make their case to the press. At 7:45 p.m. House Speaker Chris Donovan, D-Meriden, Judiciary Committee Chairman Gerald Fox, D-Stamford and Corrections Commissioner Leo Arnone convened a press conference to try and settle the matter.
Democrats conceded that language could be tightened to exclude six categories of offenders convicted of murder, capitol felony, felony murder, arson murder, aggravated sexual assault in the first degree and home invasion.
But they claimed that in no way, shape or form does the bill release inmates sooner for being good boys and girls.
“It’s not ‘lay around and here’s some good time for ya’,” Arnone said. “What this is about is program participation … We’re not opening the doors and kicking people out. We’re making people work and get involved in programs to reduce recidivism.” He added later, “We’re probably talking per inmate less than ten percent of a sentence” and that being good is a requisite to keep the earned points.
Although Arnone acknowledged the program could allow the state to close a unspecified prison, saving an estimated $12 million to $14 million annually, he and Donovan argued that keeping folks on the straight and narrow is their main motivation.
“We’ve heard complaints of people getting out of prison and just dropped on Main Street,” Donovan said. “This is good policy. Forty five states across the country have similar programs and Connecticut’s is among the most strict.”
And Fox denied that by wrapping the reform into a budget implementer rather than voting on it as a distict bill, there was any intention to avoid a lengthy debate.
“It’s certainly something that would be debated,” Fox said. “I didn’t think it would take an inordinate amount of time to discuss.”
Asked about whether there perhaps were grey areas in the language of the legislation that needed fixing, Arnone said, “There’s certainly no grey area in what the Department of Correction is looking at.”
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, subsequently convened his own press conference, arguing that what takes precedence is the language of the bill, not how Arnone interprets it.
“The bill itself says ‘for good behavior’,” Cafero said.
“God forbid, this commissioner could move to Miami or get hit by a bus” and his replacement could read the legislation completely differently, Cafero said. “That may be what he (Arnone) thinks it’s going to be but not what the law says.”
Cafero also provided a list of over two-dozen additional crimes Republicans believe should render inmates ineligible for risk reduction credits.
Arnone acknowledged some inmates convicted of violent crimes will be eligible for the credits – and that’s how it should be.
“Don’t you think the people who are violent are the ones you want to target for this program so you can reduce their violent behavior,” Arnone said.
But Cafero argued not everyone deserves a trade off and some inmates, if truly reformed, should be willing to participate in programs regardless of whether they see their sentences reduced.
“He’s only going to take it if we give him five months off? I don’t buy it,” Cafero said.
An interesting side note. One reporter told Arnone that prisoners have complained about long waiting lists for various programs. Won’t those just increase once the credits are offered?
Arnone said his department has been offering overtime to counselors who run programs at night or on weekends. He said the dividends more than pay for the extra pay.
“There really isn’t that much of a backup at all,” Arnone said. “If there’s a week, it’s a lot.”
So what happens now? Democrats want to amend the credits to exclude those aforementioned six categories of offender. They may be able to do that in the Senate without triggering rules that would require a re-vote in the House. But either way, this debate is likely to continue.