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After my release in early summer of 2007 from a Federal prison (where I served almost fourteen months for a white-collar crime), I spent five weeks in a halfway house in Hartford that served both Federal and State of Connecticut clients. I was released just two weeks before the Cheshire tragedy, an event that not only traumatized all in our state (including my family) but effectively shut down all Connecticut halfway house and parole releases for over six months. For good reason. The Cheshire murders called to attention deficiencies in the state system of release. These deficiencies were successfully addressed (in part) over the next decade by strengthening the system of community nonprofit partners that provided critical, effective wraparound services to those returning home so that they would be less likely to return to criminal behavior and return to prison. Unfortunately, due to the state fiscal crisis, many of these services have been cut back or terminated. The Governor and Department of Corrections are committed to enlightened, progressive criminal justice reform, but without adequate funding it is easy to see how their hands are in many ways tied. What we need are creative private-nonprofit-public partnerships to rethink, rebuild and fund our system of community corrections, and mental health and substance abuse programs, before there is even one more tragedy.
Jeff Grant, JD, M Div
Executive Director, Family ReEntry
Bridgeport, New Haven, Norwalk CT
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The summer of 2007 was the most challenging of my professional career. As the Director of the Department of Correction’s Parole and Community Services Division, I received the call from then Commissioner Theresa Lantz advising me that the two men charged with the Cheshire murders were under my Division’s supervision. Like all citizens of CT, I had been horrified that week to learn of the brutality that had been visited upon the Petit family.
As the father of young children at that time, I was also struck by the random nature of the crime, and the realization that even in my “safe” community, my family was equally vulnerable. I was then at the 27 year mark of a career in community corrections and proud of the role that it played in public safety. The shock of that crime was also met with the knowledge that I would be responsible to help ensure that crimes of that nature would not be repeated. For the next two years until my retirement, I kept a picture of the Petit family in my top right hand desk drawer; a constant and personal reminder of the stakes involved.
Within weeks of the Cheshire tragedy, men on parole were charged with several other high profile violent crimes, prompting then DOC Commissioner Theresa Lantz to suspend all further releases and to order a complete review of the Department’s community release, supervision and support services infrastructure. In addition to a renewed emphasis on inter-agency information sharing (neither the Parole Board nor supervising parole officers had complete prior arrest reports), and the increased use of new technologies (i.e. Global Positioning Systems), DOC reexamined the role of the parole officer, and reinvested in the tools and resources they needed to better perform their responsibilities. Chief among these concerns, was the recognition that evidence-based risk and needs assessments, and the intervention strategies that they would direct, would become an essential ingredient in addressing the complex behavioral health needs of offenders; needs that when left unaddressed, can substantially increase the likelihood of continued criminal behavior.
In the years that followed the Summer of 2007, CT made substantial investments, in partnership with our non-profit provider network, to streamline, expand and coordinate the number, type, and proficiency of services available to the reentry population. Those investments contributed, along with many other factors, to CT’s substantial reduction in its prison population (from over 20,000 in ‘07 to approximately 14,000 today).
Unfortunately, as a result of our budget situation, these programs have experienced severe reductions. Last year, DOC was forced to terminate contracts that provided essential mental health, substance abuse and employment services to men and women transitioning from incarceration to the community. This year, additional budget cuts have already forced some non-profits to shut their doors or roll back the services they provide. The inability to learn from our past failures and our past successes, will cost Connecticut not only in dollars, but in human misery.
Director of Reentry Initiatives, Family ReEntry, Inc, Bridgeport, New Haven, Norwalk, CT
Former Director, Parole and Community Services Division, Department of Correction, State of Connecticut