Legislature OKs tougher break-in bill

MICHAEL P. MAYKO mmayko@ctpost.com

Article Last Updated: 01/24/2008 12:45:32 AM EST

The verdict is out on the new comprehensive crime bill passed by the General Assembly this week.

Prosecutors like Bridgeport State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict say it brings "important changes" that will give him and his people "more leverage."

Criminal defense lawyers like Michael Fitzpatrick and Edward Gavin see it as "a knee-jerk reaction" by the Legislature to last summer's horrific Cheshire burglary that ended in rape and murder.

Educators like Samantha Mannion, a lawyer and Housatonic Community College's criminal justice chairman, agrees with the latter.

"I don't know how much impact it will have," Mannion said. "I do know that people intent on committing a crime believe they're not going to get caught. They're not calculating the potential sentence they'll face if they are caught."

The state Legislature, meeting Tuesday and into early Wednesday morning, voted to send a 43-page crime bill to Gov. M. Jodi Rell for her approval. The proposed law creates a new crime of home invasion, which will be a Class A felony and carry a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence, with a maximum of 25 years in prison. It also moves some elements like breaking into a home at night from second-degree to the more onerous first-degree burglary, which carries a 20-year sentence. It also requires those convicted of second-degree burglary — a break-in with people at home — to serve 85 percent of their sentence in prison.

Benedict said second-degree burglary often handled on

the more-crowded dockets of the Geographical Area or Part B courts, like the one on Golden Hill Street in Bridgeport, will move to the Judicial District or Part A courts where longer sentences are meted out.

"This is meant as a deterrent," said Benedict. "Burglary is a more serious crime that will carry more consequences."

Benedict also believes the additional funding for new technology that will create an information sharing system among criminal justice agencies will be a "big help."

"It will create a better networking system and allow us to trade information more easily," he said.

The proposed law also provides money for a full-time Parole Board and 132 more prison beds.

What the lawmakers didn't do was pass a three-strikes-and-you're-out provision that would keep people convicted of three violent felonies behind bars for at least 30 years and possibly life.

Nevertheless, Rell called the changes "just the beginning of a much-needed, top-to-bottom reform of our criminal justice system."

But Henry Schissler, a professor of sociology whose courses at Housatonic include the sociology of crime and punishment, wants to know "just what that shake-up" will entail.

"If it's a true shake-up it has to start with the juvenile justice system and the Department of Children and Families," he said. "We need to work more closely with children in crisis and children in foster care — these are the children that are in the most vulnerable population."

Schissler, a Cheshire resident, suggests that the General Assembly look at what Missouri has done in creating a juvenile justice system with a low recidivism rate.

"They operate under the rationale that there is swift, appropriate punishment for criminal behavior," he said. "But once that is accomplished, they provide a wide array of services to connect these children back into society. This makes the kids feel remorse for what they've done and then shows them how to become productive members of society In the long run, this saves that state huge sums of money."

Schissler said Connecticut, like most states, is reactive rather than proactive in dealing with people like Joshua Komisarjevsky, one of the two men charged in the Cheshire break-in, assault and killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela.

Komisarjevsky, a Russian adoptee, has a long criminal record dating back to his juvenile days, long before his arrest with Steven Hayes in this summer's crime.

"What we need to do is respond early in the life of a person who is at risk to becoming a career criminal," Schissler said. "What we've done is put baby teeth in our criminal justice laws."

Gavin and Fitzpatrick believe the home invasion law does little but take sentencing out of the hands of the judges.

"Who commits a home invasion without committing a more serious offense?" asked Fitzpatrick, a former president of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. "There's often a theft, a robbery, an assault, a rape or a kidnapping associated with it. You rarely see a burglary stand alone. It's always coupled with the crime that occurs inside."

And Fitzpatrick said those second crimes already carry severe penalties.

"Five or 10 years from now, sociologists are going to look at the effects of this and come to the conclusion it made little impact," he said. Gavin, who in December urged the Legislature not to pass any new laws with mandatory sentences, believes the Legislature should have waited for a report from a sentencing commission the governor impaneled.

"The Cheshire case is a horrible tragedy," Gavin said. "But this is just a knee-jerk reaction to it. Instead of plea bargaining, we're going to see more charge bargaining."