Pubdate: Tue, 16 Mar 2004
Source: New Haven Register (CT)
Copyright: 2004, New Haven Register
Author: Angela Carter, Register Staff
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)


HARTFORD -- The General Assembly's Judiciary Committee Monday passed a bill 
meant to reduce prison overcrowding, but scrapped provisions to reform 
racial disparities in the state's criminal justice system.

Members voted 29-7 in favor of House Bill 5211, An Act Concerning Prison 
Overcrowding, after more than an hour of deliberations.

State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, House co-chairman of the 
committee, said there has been a spike in the number of prisoners from 
about 17,000 to more than 19,500. The Department of Correction's budget is 
more than $500 million.

Contributing factors have been increases in the numbers of technical 
probation and parole violations and of accused persons who have not yet 
gone to trial but are in jail because they cannot afford to post bail.

"To get back where we started from three or four years ago, we came up with 
this assortment of changes," Lawlor said of the contents of the 
prison-overcrowding bill.

It would establish a policy allowing non-violent offenders who are eligible 
for parole after serving 50 percent of their sentence to be released 
automatically after serving 75 percent. Violent offenders would be released 
after serving 85 percent.

The committee also passed an amendment requiring a hearing for prisoners 
who are parole-eligible but have not yet been released at 75 or 85 percent 
of their sentence, preventing automatic releases.

Currently, there are no mandates for automatic parole releases.

The proposed legislation also would merge the boards of pardon and parole 
within the Department of Correction and empower the chairman to grant early 
release to halfway houses, group homes or treatment programs for certain 
inmates who are within 18 months of parole or conditional parole dates.

State Rep. William Dyson, D-New Haven, who worked on the bill with Lawlor, 
began talking to committee members when opposition surfaced against 
equalizing penalties for powder and crack cocaine and authorizing courts to 
divert from mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses.

Those sections were eliminated, swaying legislators who otherwise were 
inclined to vote against the bill.

"Savings are going to be achieved by closing prisons and laying off prison 
guards. I think the message in our crime laws should be: Do the crime, do 
the time," said Rep. William Hamzy, R-Terryville.

But Lawlor and citizen proponents of the bill said those policies are among 
the driving forces behind the state's racial disparities because minorities 
tend to sell or use crack cocaine while whites usually sell or use powder 

"Half the people arrested for drug law violations are white. But of those 
going to jail, one out of 10 are white," Lawlor said.

Rep. Robert Farr, R-West Hartford, said the state needs re-entry and 
supervision programs and better services in prison to help inmates prepare 
for release. "That's what we need to focus on," he said.

The bill authorizes a $1.1 million pilot program in Hartford and New Haven 
to help ex-offenders return to society.

Lorenzo Jones, a member of a statewide advocacy group Create Change, said 
after the vote that the bill creates a platform for further discussions.

"We feel good the bill was passed but we've got a lot of work to do to make 
sure families are protected and those re-entering society are aided," Jones 

The legislation now goes to the Appropriations Committee.

"This is a start, but we need to deal with that issue of disparity," said 
Dyson, the House co-chairman of Appropriations. He did not have an exact 
date the panel would act on the bill, but said the deadline is March 29.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager