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June 7, 2010

Connecticut governor vetoes bill which would have created a state sentencing commission

This local storyfrom Connecticut, which is headlined "Rell vetoes bill to create sentencing commission," reports on an interested sentencing development from the Nutmeg State.  Here are the details:

Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed a bill today that would have created a new commission within the Office of Policy and Management to review state sentencing policies.  The governor argued the legislature's Judiciary Committee already performs this function, and that the bill would have required an extra $130,000 in spending to provide salaries and benefits for commission staff.

"While I appreciate the need for review of our sentencing statutes and practices, given our state's ongoing economic challenges, this is simply the wrong time to create yet another state entity," Rell wrote in her veto message. "I have spent much of the last year examining our state budget to find ways to save money so that we would not have to increase the burden borne by our already struggling taxpayers. Some of the cuts we have made were painful. None were easy."

The bill passed overwhelmingly during the regular 2010 legislative session, which ended May 5, clearing the House unanimously and the Senate by a 34-1 margin. It would have created a 23-member Connecticut Sentencing Commission to review the existing criminal sentencing structure and any proposed changes to it. The panel would be funded, according to the bill, "within existing budgetary resources."

But the governor noted that the group would have to maintain a database and conduct trend analyses to identify areas of disparity, which would create new expenses. "I believe that the Judiciary Committee is the appropriate body to carry out these function, as they have done in the past," Rell added.

Sen. Andrew J, McDonald, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, disagreed strongly though, arguing his panel has neither the staff nor the othe resources needed to conduct this research.

McDonald added the legislation not only enjoyed broad, bipartisan support in the legislature but had "universal backing" from the chief state's attorney's office, criminal defense lawyers and criminal justice advocates. "This legislation held the prospect of creating a more coherent and sustainable system for implementing fair and proportional sentences," he added. "We held a public hearing and nobody testified against it. And up until this veto, we've had no input from the governor's office."

The legislature is tentatively scheduled to meet in special session on June 21, and could attempt to override the governor's veto later this month.  That would require a two-thirds' vote in both chambers. McDonald said he believes a veto override attempt would be appropriate, but he hasn't discussed that option yet with legislative leadership.

I tend to assume that a well-functioning state sentencing commission generally can and will produce criminal justice savings that help pay for its start-up costs.  And this is the first time I have heard of a policy-maker using cost concerns to justify doing without a sentencing commission. 

Consequently, I suspect there is more to this veto story than just an extra $130,000 in spending.  Indeed, I feel pretty confident that a concern for dollars and cents is not what is driving Gov. Rell's veto given this news piece from last week, which reports that "Connecticut Comptroller Nancy Wyman says unexpectedly good job and tax revenue growth have swelled the 2010 state budget surplus to nearly $167 million."  Seems to me that spending less than 0.1% of an unexpected state budget surplus is not too much to spend on a sentencing structure that could produce sentences that were more fair and proportional.  But I am not the Governor of Connecticut, so I do not get to make that call.

June 7, 2010 at 02:21 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I have gradually come to the viewpoint that sentencing commissions, with even more power than simply advising the legislature, is the only way to restore reason back into criminal sentencing. Seems to me that the top priority of most legislators is to get reelected, and that task is not made any easier by voting for prison reform.

cynically yours

bruce

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