10 years after Cheshire home invasion, state’s criminal justice policy continues to morph

10 years after Cheshire home invasion, state’s criminal justice policy continues to morph


Editor’s note: Part IV of a series on the legacy of the Petit home invasion 10 years ago this month.

At some point in the near future, perhaps over the next year, public safety and criminal justice officials will be able to share their information in one searchable database.

An officer responding to a call could use the system to know who, based on public records, lives at the home, which residents have firearms permits, and whether any have a criminal history or pending cases.

The same database will help prosecutors determine how to handle individual cases, allow prison officials to access an inmate’s medical history and members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles to conduct research ahead of a decision.

The Connecticut Information Sharing System, still under development, will be among the largest changes in reaction to the July 23, 2007 home invasion in Cheshire that resulted in the deaths of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 49, and her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11.

William Petit, their husband and father and the lone survivor, declined to comment for this story.

Mike Lawlor, state Office of Policy and Management undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning, said the project will address flaws in the criminal justice system identified in the aftermath of the home invasion.

“There’s no question it was a watershed moment,” he said of the incident, which prompted a review of the state’s criminal justice system.

In particular, he said a lack of information being shared among law enforcement, prosecutors, and the parole board resulted in Joshua Komisarjevsky getting released from prison on parole earlier than he should have prior to the home invasion.

Komisarjevsky, one of the two men who planned and carried out the home invasion, was granted parole in April 2007. While in a halfway house he met his accomplice, Steven Hayes, who was also on parole.

Lawlor, a former prosecutor who served in the legislature from 1987 to 2011, said the parole board lacked information about Komisarjevsky’s criminal history, details that “definitely would have changed the decision.”

Lawlor said Komisarjevsky, a Cheshire native, was well educated and knew how to manipulate the system by saying the right things. The persona contradicted the man who was in prison, but it was the only information the parole board had when making its decision.

Specifically, Lawlor said the parole board had no knowledge that Komisarjevsky set fire to a gas station while he was still a juvenile. In response, the legislature required that the parole board get copies of juvenile records, although that information remains shielded from the public.

The parole board now also gets transcripts and other details about criminal histories, a response to the fact that the board had little knowledge of the 17 brazen burglaries Komisarjevsky confessed to. He was serving a sentence for the burglaries when he was paroled in 2007.

To help process additional information, the legislature also changed the parole board to a full-time position, increased its size, and gave it additional staff to help work more efficiently since the home invasion.

Various policy changes and technological upgrades have improved access to information for others within the criminal justice system, but those documents have largely been housed in separate systems.

Enter the CISS, which will function like a typical search engine. A police officer, for example, can merely enter a name or address to see information while responding to a call.

“It would do it just like Google,” Lawlor said.

The state is still developing policies and procedures on how to get information previously contained solely in notebooks and files into the system.

The system also still needs logistical safeguards, including ensuring viewers only have access to the information they are authorized to have. HIPPA and FBI regulations, for example, mean some with access to the system aren’t allowed to view certain information.

The system, once operational, may be the most comprehensive change, but the state has already enacted other policies in response to the home invasion. Several recommendations made by two task forces, one formed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the other by the legislature, have gone into place.

Along with the changes to the parole board, one of the most notable changes is likely the creation of the home invasion charge. At the time of the Cheshire crime, the state only had the first-degree robbery offense in its statutes.

The offense is a Class B felony, punishable at that time by between one and 20 years in jail, a penalty that has since been increased.

Lawmakers wanted something stronger, and in 2008 they created the home invasion law, a Class A felony, which requires a 10 year mandatory minimum sentence and carries a maximum of life in prison. Since 2008, 152 people have been charged with home invasion, while 94 have been convicted and another 58 remain in the pretrial phase. The average sentence for those who have been convicted of home invasion is 14.7 years, according to Lawlor.

Home invasion applies to incidents when someone unlawfully enters a home with the intent to commit a felony, whereas burglary addresses only the intent to commit a crime.

Some have warned that other changes since 2007 have limited, and perhaps reduced, the state’s ability to prevent a repeat occurrence.

“I think that what we’ve done in the last six or seven years is making it easier to commit a crime and get released early,” said Al Adinolfi, a state representative from 2003 to 2008 and again from 2011 until last fall, when he decided not to seek re-election.

Adinolfi lives next door to the Petit’s former Cheshire home, now a garden. He was critical of the Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program, a policy Gov. Dannel P. Malloy put into place in 2011 to replace good time credits. The risk reduction program allows convicted inmates to earn credit toward early release if they participate in certain programs.

Others have also warned that the program gives potential dangerous offenders a path to early release.

“I believe if you do something wrong, you get convicted, you better do your time,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, who has been in the legislature since 1999. “And then once you do your time, you get out, and I want to do whatever I can to help people live a productive life.”

Critics of the program point to offenses committed by inmates released through it, notably the murder of Ibrahim Ghazal by Frankie Resto in Meriden in 2012.

Lawlor defended the program, noting that violent offenders are ineligible and must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. He also noted Connecticut’s crime rate fell again in 2015, according to most recent data, remaining at 50-year lows.

Adinolfi was a vocal proponent of a “three strikes” law, which would result in life sentences for people upon their third conviction of a violent felony. A push for the law picked up momentum after the Cheshire home invasion, but was never successful.

Lawlor said the courts already have the ability to impose a life sentence through a “persistent felony offender” law, but rarely utilize it. He also pointed to California’s repeal of its three strikes law as evidence that the policy is ineffective.

The Cheshire home invasion also played a significant role in the abolishment of the death penalty, including sentences for Komisarjevsky and Hayes. The legislature halted the use of capital punishment in 2012, but kept the death sentences for the 11 men on death row in place.

A 2015 Supreme Court ruling found those sentences unconstitutional, though, because of the 2012 law, among other reasons. Critics of the law, including Klarides, warned the ruling would be the ultimate outcome.

She said the carve out was “disingenuously” included into the law to win support from people who were on the fence shortly after the convictions of Hayes and Komisarjevsky.

Lawlor said appeals create a lengthy, expensive process leading up to the death penalty that also requires victims’ families to relive crimes. He also said studies have found capital punishment to be ineffective as a deterrent.

“There’s no evidence that this is anything other than a public policy that is about to disappear,” he said.

Twitter: @reporter_savino

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