Mother blames state's early release program on son's death - WFSB 3 Connecticut

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Mother blames state's early release program on son's death

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Doug Johnson died after getting in a physical altercation at a rehab facility (Family photo) Doug Johnson died after getting in a physical altercation at a rehab facility (Family photo)

A kitchen argument turned deadly, and now the victim’s mother is speaking out about the attack allegedly at the hands of a former convict.

Linda Blanchette is a grieving mother who believes her son would still be alive it if wasn’t for the state’s early release policy, known as the Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program.

“Over a plate of food. My son lost his life over a plate of food,” Blanchette said about her son, 49-year-old Doug Johnson.

Johnson seemed like he had it all.

Six-figure salary, half a million dollar home, a wife and three daughters.

His mom says about 10 years ago after a friend offered him oxycontin, he was hooked and went from living the good life to living on the streets.

“It was horrible. It was horrible. I did everything I could to help him. Nothing worked. It’s just so all consuming,” Blanchette said.

For years, Johnson was in and out of shelters and rehab facilities before finally getting clean.

“I think the one thing that really got him back on track was thinking about his three daughters. He absolutely adored his daughters and they were his reason for living,” Blanchette said.

Last August, Johnson started living at the Lebanon Pines Residential Program, but after only two weeks at the drug addiction treatment center, police say he got into an argument with 46-year-old Michael Neal, another resident at the facility.

A disagreement over a plate of food quickly turned physical.

“He had a fracture over his left eye. The bone in his right ear was snapped in two. Had he lived he never would have heard out of that ear and his ribs on his right side were broken,” Blanchette said.

In the arrest warrant, an eyewitness described the attack, saying “I observed the victim and Michael in each other’s faces...I saw a bunch of movement and I believe I saw Michael Neal strike the victim in the head with a closed fist. I then saw the victim fall straight backwards like a tree and cracked the back of his head on the floor.”

The blows were just too much for Johnson to overcome.

“We watched him die for 11 days and finally on the 30th there was no brain activity left and I had to make the decision to stop the life support,” Blanchette said.

In the days following the loss of her son, Blanchette says she learned some troubling news about her son’s alleged killer.

His inmate record shows Neal had a lengthy criminal history dating back to 1988 with more than 30 offenses, including first-degree robbery and second-degree assault.

For his last offense, he was released more than two months early in May 2016.

“That in itself is criminal. The people responsible for releasing Michael early I don’t know how they sleep at night. I know I haven’t been,” Blanchette said.

Neal was released 69 days early because of Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program and he was awarded behind bars for good behavior.

The Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program was signed into law in 2011, and allows inmates to receive up to five days off their sentences every month.

Right now, only those convicted of eight crimes are ineligible to participate in the program.

“It’s not working. And good behavior? What about the behavior that got them in there to begin with? Why aren’t they looking at that,” Blanchette said.

State Senator Len Suzio agrees and has been an outspoken critic of the program.

He says it’s simply not working and that in the first so-called graduating class of the program, the recidivism rate was nearly 96 percent.

He calls Neal the rule rather than the exception.

“The ironic thing about the program is many of the criminals are going back to their life of crime and they’re committing more horrific crimes,” Suzio said.

Officials with the Department of Correction are quick to point out that in this situation “...absent any application of credit, Neal would have been released at the time of this incident. He served more than 90% of this non-violent conviction.”

“Yeah but he took 100 percent of my son’s life and destroyed the family in the process,” Blanchette said.

A Dept. of Corrections spokesperson said the program is working and statistics prove it, saying “when compared to two years ago, assaults on staff are down 16% and inmate assaults and fights are down 17% and 13% respectively. Furthermore, fewer people are entering the prison system, marking historical low population counts.”

“Violent offenders are doing more time under my administration than any other administration in the state’s history,” said Gov. Dannel Malloy.

None of it is does anything to change the way Blanchette feels. Nothing is bringing her son back, and despite Neal being charged with second-degree manslaughter in connection to his death, if convicted, he would still be eligible to receive early release credits while in prison.

“That’s outrageous. How many people is he going to have to kill before they keep him in prison,” Blanchette said.

Neal remains behind bars and his bond is set at $500,000.

Meanwhile, Suzio is looking to reintroduce legislation to reform the program adding to the list of ineligible offenses.

For more information on the Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program, click here.

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