It is only a matter of days until COVID-19 takes root in one of Connecticut’s prisons, infecting both guards and inmates. The results will be catastrophic. Inmates and prisoner activists are experimenting with lawsuits and administrative requests to provide relief before disaster strikes. The pace of litigation, even expedited litigation, is too slow.
What’s needed is decisive executive leadership from Gov. Ned Lamont.
Here’s a plan he can execute in a matter of days, not weeks. He should begin work on it immediately. The goal is to reduce the prison policy as much as can be done consistent with public safety. The hope is that a reduced prison capacity will make it possible to save the lives of those who remain behind bars.
The Department of Corrections has the means in hours to generate a computerized list of inmates. I know it does, because I’ve been a guest in the records department, and have had access to computer generated lists in connection with litigation involving guards and inmates.
Generate a list of all inmates who are eligible for release to the community on parole once they have served 50 percent of their sentence. These are non-violent offenders. (Violent offenders are either eligible for release after having served 85 percent of their sentence; those convicted of murder are not eligible at all.)
Then sort that list in terms of estimated release dates, ranked from those the soonest release date to the latest. I’m betting there are hundreds of the 12,000 prisoners eligible for early release in the next year.
Then sort that list scoring for disciplinary issues within the prison. Most prisoners adjust to life behind bars. Some do not.
Release all prisoners serving 50 percent offenses with no tickets in the past five years to transitional supervision, “TS,” with custodianship of them transferred to a willing family member. Begin making calls now to determine who has family support.
The Board of Pardons and Parole does not need to be consulted for this. “TS,” is an administrative act. The same gubernatorial pen that suspended court filing deadlines and extended statutes of limitations can be used to sign an order accomplishing this. Each prisoner so released could agree voluntarily to report back upon order of the governor, or face an additional charge of escape from custody, a felony.
Those serving 85 percent sentences should be considered for release using the following protocol.
Generate a list of all prisoners serving 85 percent sentences, ranking them from oldest in age to youngest. Any prisoner over the age of 60 whose crime was committed more than 30 years ago should be presumed eligible for release on terms identical to those for the non-violent offenders. The presumption can be rebutted upon a showing of a recent disciplinary history involving allegations of violence.
For those prisoners serving mandatory life sentences, create another spreadsheet. If they over 70 and their crimes were committed 40 or more years ago, let them go on similar terms.
This would take uncommon courage for the governor. It would face legal challenge by victims’ advocates who would claim they have a right to be heard. To circumvent that hurdle, hold a one-day hearing, let’s say on Thursday, at the Legislative Office Building, where, subject to social distancing, the victims can come and recite their reasons why inmates should be left in prison. Begin the release of prisoners this week.
Is this plan arbitrary? Yeah, sort of. All plans are, requiring line-drawing and debate.
Only this time there isn’t time for debate and line-drawing. The governor is on notice. Action is necessary. Delay means certain and unnecessary death.
Step up the plate, Governor Lamont. Now is the time for leadership.