Fasano Reacts to Governor’s Criminal Justice Reform Plan [NHRegister]

February 4, 2015

Middletown Press
NEW HAVEN >> Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, declaring America has gotten away from being a “second-chance society,” has proposed major changes in the criminal justice system that would treat drug possession as a misdemeanor and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug possession.

Malloy also wants expedited parole hearings for non-violent low-risk inmates and an easier road to full pardons for ex-inmates after they have finished probation and “several years of responsible citizenship.”

The last part of his announcement is for an automatic post-prison employment program that combines basic education with skills training and a separate supportive housing for individuals who cycle in and out of prisons due to chronic health programs and untreated mental illness.

Malloy made his announcement at the Yale Law School before an audience of students, as well as criminal justice officials, several New Haven state representatives, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and Bridgeport Mayor William Finch.

The governor’s proposals are aimed at non-violent criminals, but he said he would later move to expand that to other categories.

He predicted he will be able to get approval for his plan this legislative session. Malloy said he would also be announcing executive actions in the near future.

“Today,criminal justice too often means life-long punishment and a permanent stigma. Make no mistake … offenders should be held accountable and there should be punishments. But punishment for non-violent offenses should not last a lifetime. They should not destroy a person’s hope for redemption or simply for a better future,” Malloy said.

The governor said the state should have been building modern schools in the last few decades, rather than modern prisons.

The prison population in Connecticut is at a low of 16,300, but it almost quadrupled from 5,400 inmates in 1995 to almost 20,000 in 2008.

In the late 1980s, the state spent over $1 billion to build 10,000 prison beds. Malloy referenced former Gov. John G. Rowland spending millions each year to send 500 Connecticut prisoners to West Virginia.

Malloy said “zero tolerance” laws have led to a “school to prison pipeline,” which the state is trying to change with more wraparound programs in schools and reforms to the juvenile justice system that focus on early intervention. The number of persons aged 18 to 21 in the adult prisons has also dropped 48 percent since 2011.

He said there has been a generation of offenders, often non-violent and addicted to drugs, mentally ill or “just plain poor” have gotten out of prison with no chance at a decent job.

The governor said every citizen paid the price for this failed public policy, which he is working to change. The governor said the state is backing longer sentences for violent criminals, which is contributing to a 48-year low crime rate. He said it cost $45,000 or $120 a day to house a non-violent offender, which is a bad use of resources.

During his tenure, Malloy said violent crime is down 36 percent and criminal arrests down nearly 28 percent; violent crime in the three largest cities is down 15 percent since 2008. He said the state has seen 6,000 fewer drug arrests given the new approach to marijuana possession.

“I think it is time we stop treating addiction as a felony. Addiction is a addiction,” he said.

Malloy said now is the time “to double-down” on reforms to build on recent successes.

The governor made the point that many of his initiatives are part of policy changes in such red states as Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama.

“Much of what we have done already has been done in Republican states, Republicans in Connecticut chose to attack it,” Malloy said of previous initiatives in Connecticut that have seen blow back from the GOP, particularly the early release program, which officials say has actually resulted in fewer early release decisions than previous administrations.

Michael Lawlor, the governor’s liaison on criminal matters, said there are fewer people in prison as arrests are dropping, not because more prisoners are getting out early.

For the new initiatives, “This isn’t simply Dan Malloy saying it, Some of these things are being done in other states and a number of states have Republican governors and Republican legislatures.”

Lawlor said non-violent inmates constitute about half of the 16,300 prison population.

The get tough on crime era across the United States saw the inmate population explode, particularly because of mandatory minimum statutes.

The U.S. with 2.2 million prisoners has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with China at 1.7 million, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

Malloy said there have been several turning points recently indicating this trend is on the downturn. He pointed to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who built large numbers of prison beds during his tenure, but is now saying that there are better ways to reduce crime. In Texas, which has the highest number of executions, Malloy says they are now treating non-violent criminals differently.

“What’s important to me is not the philosophy or the morality of what we are doing, which both argue we should do it, but that we will save substantial amounts of money and lower crime by producing fewer professional criminals … that is what I am trying to do,” Malloy said.

The governor said the context for his proposals is the 2014 felony rate in Connecticut, which has dropped at three times the rate of the rest of the country since he became governor.

State Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said despite the mandatory two-year minimum for drug possession, he contends sentences get worked out and offenders are more likely to be put into drug addiction programs.

Lawlor said it is true that “not many” are hit with the two-year sentence, but the fact that it is on the books, has a big impact on outcomes, from the amount set for bail, to pre-trial incarceration to guilty pleas in exchange for reducing jail time.

Dropping the mandatory aspect would impact all those persons charged with possession within 1,500 feet of a school, daycare center or public housing project. There was a failed attempt last year to change the number of feet near these institutions where this sentence would kick in. There is no place in New Haven where these zones are not in place and few if any in West Haven and East Haven.

Under Proposition 47 in California, which was recently adopted, drug possession was reduced to a misdemeanor retroactively with low level offenders released from jail. This has allowed those with more serious crimes to serve a longer portion of their sentences which had been cut because of overcrowded prisons.

Fasano said personally, he would be willing to go further than Malloy on dropping mandatory minimums for intent to sell as he has faith in judges to come up with fair sentences. Fasano said often young kids get “off to a bad start” when charged with this offense. “I’m not sure that it is fair,” he said of the mandatory minimum.

Fasano said he was not sure why there is a backlog for parole hearings. He said they should put more personnel on the issue and separate out the non-violent offenders.

The administration is recommending streamlining the process, including creation of an optional hearing process for low-level, non-violent individuals. Passing the legislation would bring Connecticut in line with most other states, Malloy said.

On streamlining the pardons process, the administration said the existing statute is so complex as to disqualify individuals who otherwise would be good candidates.

Fasano said he gets nervous when government talks about “streamlining” pardon processes. “We don’t have stellar outcomes,” when it comes to risk reduction and parole, Fasano said.

Malloy said pardons for non-violent offenders after a certain period of time and demonstration that they are responsible citizens “should almost be automatic. People, particularly young people, make mistakes. We need to make sure we are reaching those individuals as rapidly as we can to restore them to full citizenship.”

He said the road to a pardon “should not be paved with overly burdensome legal land mines.”

On job training, Fasano said there should be a review of all the programs and consolidation of those that work. He said the Republican caucus will have some recommendations on this as part of its urban agenda.