Sentencing Commission Tackles Three Big Criminal Justice Reforms
HARTFORD, CT — The public got a chance Monday to weigh in on three proposals that would change Connecticut’s criminal justice system in very different ways.
One proposal would change which sex offenders would have to continue to appear on the sex offender registry, another proposes a constitutional amendment on pretrial release and detention, and a third would reduce a state sentence for a misdemeanor offense by one day to prevent more severe immigration consequences.
The Sentencing Commission is preparing to make its recommendations to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly for the start of the 2018 legislative session.
The testimony from about 30 members of the public was emotional at times.
Cindy Prizio, executive director of Connecticut for One Standard of Justice, was unhappy with the recommendations regarding the sex offender registry because it would not apply to all sex offenders.
The proposal would give those on the registry an opportunity to petition to shorten their registration period or apply for removal from the public registry. In order to do so the registrant would have to show that they have reduced their risk to the community. Under the new system a person could be on the registry for shorter periods than under the current system, and others would be on for longer periods.
“This draft proposal is steeped in feel good laws,” Prizio said. “I don’t think you needed to meet for two years to get to it.”
She said her group would never support it.
“We are not a disposable people and we are fighting for our rights,” Prizio said.
Thomas Ullman, a former public defender from New Haven, took issue without Prizio’s stance on the issue.
“I find it hard to believe every member of the organization would be opposed to legislation that would aid all the future registrants as well as those in the past who have no ability to get off the registry at this time,” Ullman said. “The extreme position you have would realistically never have the support of our legislature at this time.”
He said taking such an extreme position means 300 to 500 people will have no way to get off the registry.
Prizio said she understands this is politics and “you give a little to get a little,” but as a “victims advocate you don’t want to do harm to your victims.”
She said her son can’t be with his family and he’s isolated. She said he had more social support in prison. She said suicide and homelessness are very real for this population.
The Sentencing Commission also re-litigated the issue of bail reform and money bail.
The General Assembly and Malloy thought they revised the bail system and got rid of cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors, but they recently had to revise part of the law that went into effect on July 1. They eliminated cash bail again as part of the budget Malloy signed on Oct. 31.
The Sentencing Commission is exploring a constitutional amendment on pre-trial release and detention that would permit denial of release for high-risk defendants and deny detention of defendants for lack of funds to secure a bail bond.
The bail industry universally opposed it.
Andrew Marocchini, of the Bail Association of Connecticut, said Connecticut doesn’t have a problem with indigents being held pre-trial.
State officials would disagree with the bail industry’s perception of the problem and the numbers.
When the General Assembly was debating the issue back in June there were about 3,100 pre-sentence inmates being held because they couldn’t post bail, but only about 388 are non-violent and would qualify for release.
Proponents of changes to the bail system said it was necessary because at the moment wealthier individuals can buy their way out of jail even if the arrest is for a serious crime, while poorer individuals remain in jail for a less serious crime. Aside from costing the state while sitting in jail, proponents say the current use of pre-trial detention disrupts individuals’ work and family lives, and imposes costs on a society that wishes to see these individuals become productive members of their communities.
Marocchini said a vast majority of defendants in Connecticut are released on a promise to appear and dismissed the problem.
But data from the Department of Corrections shows there were 3,374 pre-trial defendants being held last month. It’s unclear how many of them would have qualified to be released under changes to the bail system.
The state expects to get a better idea of what’s happening with the pre-trial population at the end of January.
What about preventative detention?
“If it’s something less than a capital offense there should be a good reason for holding that person,” Marocchini said. “Without an example it’s hard to have these arbitrary conversations.”
Marocchini said many of those being held on misdemeanor charges in Connecticut had past criminal charges that may have been more serious than the misdemeanor they are currently being held upon. He estimated about 77 percent of the pre-trial defendants, in a study the group did back in April 2016, would not qualify for release without a bond because of their past criminal behavior.
Timothy Fisher, dean of the University of Connecticut Law School, said there’s no reason for a money bail system.
It means that “dangerous defendants are able to go free if they are sufficiently wealthy and those who should be free pending their trials are held simply because of poverty,” Fisher said.
He said the bail bond system is a “wealth transfer to the insurance industry.”
The criminal justice system is based on the premise that you are innocent until proven guilty so unless there’s a powerful reason to detain an individual they should be allowed to return home until their trial, Fisher said.
He said there’s also a huge disparity in the sentences that are given to someone who has been held in detention and someone who was able to post bond.
“You are five times more likely to be sentenced to a jail term if you are in pre-trial detention,” Fisher said.
Ana Maria Rivera, of the Connecticut Immigration Rights Alliance, asked the Sentencing Commission to reduce its misdemeanor sentencing from 365 days to 364 days. That one day would give immigration judges more discretion in deportation hearings.
Any state misdemeanor offense with a sentence of one year or more is treated as an “aggravated felony” by the federal court system and could cause someone to be deported, Rivera said. “Regardless, of the actual sentence imposed.”
Simply put, “this bill would change the maximum sentence from 365 days to 364 days,” Rivera said.
She said it would ensure Connecticut immigrants and families won’t be subject to the most severe immigration consequences.
“The toughest cases we always encounter are those with people who have been convicted of any kind of crime,” Rivera said. “Every single case I’ve worked on that involves a criminal conviction has resulted in deportation. No matter how hard we fight.”
The Sentencing Commission is expected to meet to review what they heard at the public hearing at 2 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 14.