Fasano: Open to Discussion on Criminal-Justice Reforms, Also Shares Concerns [WSJ]

February 4, 2015

Wall Street Journal
NEW HAVEN, Conn.—Gov. Dannel Malloy on Tuesday proposed changes to the state’s criminal-justice laws, including eliminating mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug possession and reclassifying some nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors.

Mr. Malloy, during a speech at Yale University, said too many resources are being devoted to incarcerating people who don’t have violent histories, which can create lifelong obstacles for them once freed. He added that it costs the state $45,000 a year to imprison an offender.

“Make no mistake, a crime is a crime, and offenders should be held accountable,” Mr. Malloy, a Democrat, said. “But punishment for nonviolent offenses should not last a lifetime.”

The administration’s push comes as crime rates and prison populations have fallen in Connecticut. Violent-crime incidents in the state fell 12% to 9,107 in 2013 from 10,399 in 2003.

The prison population currently stands at 16,300, a 16-year low. Mr. Malloy said the drop in crime coincides with a shift in policing strategy that focuses on violent criminals rather than nonviolent offenders.

Mr. Malloy, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, said U.S. states went too far punishing drug offenders in the 1980s and 1990s, and the sentences for nonviolent offenders often outweighed the crimes.

It led to increased recidivism and crowded prisons, he said. “It was a failed experiment.”

Mr. Malloy’s proposals include reclassifying drug possession as a misdemeanor. Selling drugs and the intent to sell drugs would remain felony offenses, Malloy officials said.

Without mandatory-minimum sentencing for drug-possession offenses, judges would be able to impose sentences based on the specific crime and offender.

Mr. Malloy also proposed streamlining parole proceedings so that nonviolent inmates get expedited reviews and called for the creation of new employment and housing programs to help ease ex-inmates into society.

The state should make it easier to pardon ex-inmates, clearing their criminal records once they have fulfilled their jail sentence or probation and demonstrated several years of “responsible citizenship,” he said.

The changes require approval from the state Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats who generally side with the governor.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano said he was open to the concept of changing mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses and for expanding job programs for convicts.

But he said reclassifying felony drug possessions to misdemeanors was unnecessary. Felony convictions for drug possession are rare, Mr. Fasano said, typically occurring only after multiple offenses.

He also said that Mr. Malloy’s proposals on pardons raised some concerns. Employers deserve to know if prospective workers are ex-convicts, he said.

Issa Kohler-Hausmann, associate professor of law at Yale Law School, said Mr. Malloy’s proposals reclassifying drug offenses and eliminating mandatory sentences were good first steps at reducing the difficulties people face after being convicted of nonviolent crimes.

“Since the 1970s, we’ve basically decided that anyone marked as criminal is outside…the class of citizens we think are deserving of respect and concern,” she said.

The Malloy administration’s proposals, she added, are “shifting that conversation.”