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Monday, January 28, 2008

Criminal justice reform to aid New Haven

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— The sweeping new legislation that will reform the state’s criminal justice system also will reap rewards for New Haven, as the package contains $7 million for prison reentry and alternative-to-incarceration programs for three large cities.
The plan, signed into law by Gov. M. Jodi Rell Friday, immediately adds 35 beds for both reentry and alternative-to-incarceration programs, and adds 100 beds in each category by Nov. 15. The funds are targeted for programs that serve New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford.
The city estimates 25 prisoners are released into New Haven neighborhoods from state prisons each week.
The package passed last week also calls for a 12-bed residential sex offender treatment facility, for occupancy no later than July 1 at a location to be determined. The lack of such a state facility came to sudden light last year when Southbury residents loudly protested the release of a repeat sex offender into their usually quiet suburb.
State Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven touted the reform package as a direct benefit to New Haven and said re-entry “primarily has to be a state initiative, because they are the responsibility of the state when released.”
“We need better ways of gradually phasing people back into the community,” he said.
“These are critically important sections of the bill that are absolutely necessary as part of criminal justice reform,” said Looney. “We need to find effective ways to provide gradual reentry for people who are coming out of prison and to provide them with mental health and other necessary services and programs.”
But even as the state works to ramp up its programs, the city also will continue to push its own multi-million dollar reentry plan.
The city is seeking $500,000 in state aid and $3 million in federal funds this year to expand programs to assist recently released inmates. Those numbers are significantly less than estimated late last year due to new cost evaluations. Laoise King, the city’s liaison to the state delegation, said the plan has not been scaled back. The recently-approved state package already includes $7 million in state aide for reentry and alternative-to-incarceration programs, targeting New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford.
“I think it’s heartening to see reentry was part of the (state) crime package, but I certainly think the city of New Haven would want to see more in additional resources to tackle additional issues,” said New Haven’s Community Services Administrator Kica Matos.
Forty-seven percent of those released directly into the community will return to jail, a Central Connecticut State University study found.
It’s an expensive problem. The Justice Mapping Center estimates the state spent $16.5 million in 2006 incarcerating 267 inmates from the Hill neighborhood alone. Citywide, 1,259 inmates resulted in $77 million in prison expenses.
New Haven’s plan calls for diverting some of those millions towards efforts to aid the low-income communities most impacted by crime, and now absorbing the majority of the released prison population.
New Haven’s plan calls for expansion of community-based re-entry programs, beyond what is available now, and beyond the approved additional beds. The plan also calls for the end to so-called “prison dumping,” in which released inmates are dropped-off outside jails and homeless shelters, and the end to systematic practices that harm ex-offenders changes of success after release, such as the city’s recent initiative removing the requirement that applicants for city jobs disclose their criminal history.
But as New Haven starts to shop its plan to lawmakers outside the city, it’s unclear how it will be received.
State Rep. William Dyson, D-New Haven, questioned where city funds are in the re-entry proposal.
“Whose money is missing (from the proposal)?” he questioned. “Does the city have some responsibility to find some solution to the problem? Absolutely,” he said.
“The request is going to be made to the state. I’m still waiting to hear what the city is putting in. What are they committing to this?” he said.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said he found Dyson’s comments “bizarre.”
“In as much as these are state Department of Corrections inmates returning to our community, we bear the cost of housing, we bear the social cost, and we provide tax exemptions to services that support this population,” DeStefano said. “I absolutely cannot shift these (new) costs onto the already overburdened taxpayers of New Haven.”
Lawmakers pushed for the criminal justice system reform following the brutal triple-homicide in Cheshire in July.
Dyson was one of 12 legislators to vote against the reforms.
“All the home invasions in New Haven, Bridgeport didn’t mean a thing until it happened in Cheshire,” Dyson said. “You had a tragedy of the worst sort take place in Cheshire. Nothing we did on Tuesday would have prevented that from taking place.”
Elizabeth Benton can be reached at 789-5714 or at ebenton@nhregister.com.