Democrats and Republicans agree on Second Chance bill

August 27, 2015

Record Journal Editorial

“It costs $51,000 a year to lock somebody up. It costs $15,000 a year to send them to UConn. We need to send more people to UConn and fewer people to be locked up.”

That was Peter Gioia, of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the state’s largest business lobbying group, praising Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” bill, which eliminates prison as a punishment for many drug possession crimes. This is looking to be that rare thing in politics: and issue on which Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives can come together.

“We looked at it and said drug addiction is a health issue, not necessarily a criminal issue,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, of North Haven, said. He joined his House colleague Rep. Themis Klarides, of Derby, in supporting the Democratic governor’s plan.

“ … We’ve got to find the right balance, because permanently punishing people is like permanently punishing ourselves,” said Malloy, a former prosecutor. “I’ll have a series of next steps for the next session — already working on it,” he said.

The “Second Chance” bill was passed in special session. The bipartisan support should make it harder for political opponents to accuse anyone who supported the bill of being “soft on crime” during next year’s legislative elections.

Which is just as well, because being “tough on crime” is exactly how we got to where we are — how this state managed to triple its prison population in 25 years, and how this country came to have the highest incarceration rate of any major country.

The trend seems to have started in 1973 with the so-called “Rockefeller laws” that imposed new, often draconian sentences for many drug offenses, even minor ones, in New York.

At the time, New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller was considered a presidential prospect; his approach was in keeping with the “tough on crime” tone of the Nixon Administration, and other states followed suit. Thus, these laws were in place when the crack cocaine epidemic hit, in the 1980s, and the prison population exploded.

Now there are more than 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons, at an annual cost to the public of around $60 billion. Connecticut’s prison system costs $700 million a year to run.

In recent years, various states have questioned the value of tougher drug sentences and building more prisons, leaving young drug offenders with records that can wreck their futures.
Malloy told a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror that he learned while touring a maximum-security prison in Germany that 25 percent of the staff were there to prepare inmates for release. He was impressed with that very different approach to crime and punishment.

Malloy’s legislation doesn’t go that far, but it does reclassify most drug possession crimes as misdemeanors, and it repeals the two-year mandatory-minimum sentence for possession within 1,500 feet of a school or day care. For a second possession offense, the court could order drug treatment. Further offenses could lead to felony charges.

The Second Chance bill was supported by the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, as well as the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus and the ACLU. If this is what Fasano meant when he spoke of exchanging ideas across party lines “to the betterment of the state of Connecticut,” then let’s have more of it.