Will Republicans Succeed In Making Criminal Justice An Issue in 2012?
Connecticut has seen its fair share of criminal justice policy changes since a Democrat took over the governor’s office, and Republican lawmakers say they plan to force their Democratic opponents to defend them in the upcoming election.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney noted last week that economic issues like tax hikes, the state budget, and unemployment will be the primary talking points for GOP candidates in this election cycle. But expect some public safety issues as well.
Early Release Credits
First and foremost, McKinney and House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero agreed they will try to make Democrats justify a program that allows prison inmates to earn an opportunity to for an early parole hearing.
Under the policy passed last year inmates can earn credits that could reduce their prison sentence early by a maximum of five days a month. Credits are earned by participating in programs designed to ease their transitions back into society.
Though Cafero said he doesn’t object to the concept for non-violent criminals, he objects to Democrats’ decision to allow most violent criminals to participate.
“I think it’s certainly going to be a campaign issue and it should be,” Cafero said.
Republicans also plan to hold hearings to determine just how the program is administered and what sorts of criminals are being allowed to leave prison early, he said.
“We’ve heard anecdotes and rumors that people are just signing up for programs and not going and getting these credits,” Cafero said.
Michael P. Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s criminal justice adviser, stresses that just because an inmate earns a credit doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily get out any earlier. The decision is still up to a parole board and the state has recently concentrated identifying inmates who might be dangerous and assessing the risks. It’s highly unlikely that a parole board would choose to let a violent inmate out early, earned credits or not, he said.
However, McKinney said the mere fact that people convicted of things like rape or arson can even be awarded the credits is an insult to their victims and those victims’ families.
“To learn that that person can get out early because of good time credits—it’s a complete slap in the face to those families,” McKinney said.
“I think it’s completely fair game for all Republicans to campaign against any Democrat who voted for the early release program,” he added.
Roy Occhiogrosso, a longtime Democratic operative and Malloy’s senior communication adviser, said he expects the Republicans’ efforts to campaign on the program and other criminal justice policies, to fall flat with the public.
“Crime is at a 44-year low, the prison population is being reduced responsibly. People in Connecticut, according to statistics, are safer than they’ve been in a long time,” Occhiogrosso said.
But he acknowledged “It would be wise for Democrats to get out in front of” potentially scary 30-second TV spots. Democrats should “remind people we’re improving public safety and saving the taxpayers money,” Occhiogrosso said.
While conservatives prepare to battle liberals over the program in Connecticut, similar policies are less partisan in other states. A 2011 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that before the early release program passed, Connecticut was one of only six states that did not offer inmates some form of good or earned time credit.
Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden, a Republican who heads up the Texas Legislature’s Judiciary and Corrections Committee, said he looks at his state’s version of the program as a smart approach to managing inmates.
“It’s a population control device, and it’s a good thing for giving us a better sense of community safety,” Madden said.
The Texas correctional system oversees the housing and rehabilitation of some 154,500 inmates. Compared to Connecticut’s 16,591 inmates, it’s a big operation. With each inmate costing the state somewhere around $50 a day, Madden said the money the state saves by shaving days off sentences adds up quickly.
The policy also allows the Correction Department to match convicts to programs that will ease their transition back into society and reduce the likelihood they’ll commit another crime and return, he said.
“Every one of these people, with a few exceptions, will eventually be released to the place they call home. It’s a wise idea to some sort of supervision. If the Department of Corrections has done its job, you’ve changed their behavior,” Madden said.
However, McKinney said people in Connecticut want to see violent criminals serve their time.
The Connecticut General Assembly’s decision to abolish the death penalty this year is also likely to be a campaign issue for some. Connecticut’s repeal of the death penalty wasn’t a strictly partisan affair, but McKinney said it will be a strong issue for Republicans in some districts.
An April poll found 62 percent voters favor the death penalty. But given the option of life imprisonment as an alternative voters were evenly split with 46 percent on each side. And under the new law, future offenders convicted of capital murder cases will be housed in segregated sections of prisons with living conditions harsher than those on the current death row.
It’s unclear whether there are enough death penalty supporters in Connecticut for the repeal to energize the Republican base and make a strong campaign issue.
But McKinney said sometimes events intersect with politics in unexpected ways. For instance, the shooting that occurred last week in a Colorado movie theater, which left 12 dead and close to 60 injured, could have Connecticut voters uncomfortable with not having a death penalty available, McKinney said.
“Tell people that someone could walk into a movie theater in Connecticut and gun people down and not have to face the death penalty—I think they’d be outraged,” McKinney said.
In practice, even before the new law, the state almost never executed inmates. Since Connecticut reinstated the death penalty in 1973, just one person has been executed. That inmate, Michael Ross, was killed in 2005 only after he waived his right to appeal his sentence, favoring death over life in prison.
Repeal proponents argued that the state diverted too much money to prosecute expensive death penalty cases, along the way dragging the families of victims through years of litigation, only to get a death sentence that in all likelihood would never be carried out.
Cafero said the that voters will also be appalled if the inmates already on death row succeed in appealing their execution because of the legislature’s action. He said he expects them to be successful because courts will find the prospective aspect of the law unconstitutional.
On Tuesday lawyers for the inmates asked a judge to allow them to amend a pre-existing lawsuit claiming the state’s death penalty was unconstitutional to reflect the abolition of the law. The judge denied their request to make the argument, but that likely won’t stop them from filing separate petitions down the road.
State police minimum staffing mandate
McKinney said he thinks the Democrat-led initiative to scrap the mandate requiring the state to employ at least 1,248 sworn state troopers could also be a strong campaign issue for Republicans.
“Every time I drive to Hartford you can see a difference in how people drive when state troopers are on the road,” he said. “... When you say there are less state police on the roads, I think people will care.”
Cafero wasn’t so sure it would be a persuasive argument for voters, mainly because he didn’t know how many of them knew about the mandate. That could be because the state has basically ignored it for years.
The law was something of a legislative reaction to the 1998 killing of Heather Messenger in Chaplin. Before being murdered by her husband, Messenger was able to barricade herself in her bedroom and dial 911.
Unfortunately, the local state police barracks had only four troopers on road that night and one on desk duty. The four officers were scattered about their 300-square-mile coverage area and it took them 20 minutes to get to Messenger’s residence. They were too late to save her.
Before the year was out, lawmakers had it written into statute that there would always be at least 1,248 troopers in Connecticut. But in practice, there hasn’t been. Right now there’s about 1,080.
And with the exception of some clamoring from the union that represents state troopers, the state has been content to ignore the law, looking at it as a goal or suggestion.
But that changed last year when Malloy laid off 56 troopers after they refused to forgo a raise to help balance the budget. It was too much for the union, which responded by suing the state for not enforcing the mandate.
When a Superior Court judge sided with the union and refused to dismiss the case, the Malloy administration called the requirement arbitrary and later proposed legislation to eliminate it altogether.
Lawmakers amended the bill to include a study of how many troopers is appropriate, while eliminating the 1,248 trooper mandate.
McKinney’s primary complaint about the bill is that it eliminated the mandate before the state completed the study and not after. He argued that when lawmakers first established the number it wasn’t “picked out of thin air.”
Voters will also react to the Democrats “flip-flopping” on the issue, McKinney said. Malloy supported the trooper mandate as a candidate and many of the Democrats who help unanimously approve the law are still in the legislature, he said.
Responding to similar criticisms in May, Occhiogrosso said Candidate Malloy thought there was a data-driven, logical reason for setting the number at 1,248. Governor Malloy, armed with more resources, studied the issue and determined there wasn’t, he said.
While Republican opposition to eliminating the mandate will likely earn them some votes from members of the state police union, how much the average voter will object to the state casting aside a law it wasn’t abiding remains to be seen.
But Republicans have one more criminal justice policy to hit Democrats with: lawmakers approved a bill that put an end to the days when possession of a small amount of marijuana could land someone in jail. Under the new law, possession of less than a half ounce earns you a fine akin to a traffic ticket.
The law might be a hard sell as a campaign issue however. Last year a Quinnipiac University poll found that Connecticut voters supported the decriminalization effort 65 – 32 percent.
McKinney acknowledged voters are generally supportive of the law but said that support is often plagued by misconceptions. For one thing, he said people have this idea that state prisons are overflowing with people jailed for a small amount of weed, when that’s never been the case. He said the marijuana issue is one that’s better conveyed through one-on-one discussions with voters and is too complex to break down in a 30-second TV ad.
Cafero, who works as an expulsion officer in Norwalk, said decriminalization has had a dire impact on young people who took the law to mean it’s alright to use the substance. He called it an epidemic in the state’s high schools. Cafero pointed to a recent article in the Hartford Courant which cited a report that found daily marijuana use among teens is at a 30-year peak.
Marijuana has grown more potent and is having an adverse effect on the academic, social, and family lives of the teens using it, Cafero added.
“This isn’t the marijuana of the ‘70s,” he said.