By Dannel Malloy
The problems at the heart of our criminal justice system now permeate every corner of our communities — from the mother who is left behind to support her family alone to the returning citizen who has paid his debt to society but still can’t find work. We lock up too many people for too long. We break up families and communities and still don’t address the underlying problems, which are often substance abuse or mental illness.
Since I became governor, reforming our criminal justice system has been a focus of my administration. On issues like these, there is no time for posturing or political gamesmanship. Our lawmakers in the legislature on both sides of the aisle agreed, and I am so proud of the significant strides our state has taken over the past five years to restore fairness to our justice system and reduce crime.
As a former prosecutor and defense attorney, I have experienced our broken system from both sides of the courtroom, and I am acutely aware of the impact these practices can have in our communities. Decade after decade, we’ve thrown people in prison without considering how this impacts public safety. When combined with irresponsible sentencing laws, low-level crimes such as drug possession and violations of probation can send people away for years, especially the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society.
Until recently, we have unwittingly created a cycle of failure: We repeatedly incarcerate low-risk, nonviolent people; we fail to provide them with the services they need; we make it more difficult to successfully re-enter society, to obtain a house or find a job. For too long our criminal justice system has made it more likely that re-entering offenders will re-offend, return to prison and repeat the cycle, all at taxpayers’ expense. All of this — and we’re no safer for it.
Convictions and incarceration should not be the sole focus of a criminal justice system in a nation founded by people seeking a second chance at freedom and opportunity. In many ways, this belief is what drove the reforms we have enacted in Connecticut, which are making our justice system more equitable, humane and efficient. Our reform efforts seek to turn this cycle of poverty and punishment into a system of opportunity and redemption.
Right now, justice reform advocates on both sides of the partisan divide have their eyes fixed on Washington. Both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are sitting on reform bills that could have a major impact on federal sentencing and corrections practices. But across the nation, red states and blue states have already enacted reforms that are changing the lives of millions of Americans. Our leadership in Connecticut is a prime example.
My administration’s Second Chance Society has achieved major success, eliminating all mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug possession to ensure the punishment fits the crime. We established a more efficient parole process for nonviolent, no-victim cases so individuals have less uncertainty as to their release date and can focus on successfully re-entering society rather than becoming a career criminal. And by clearing the way to a pardon for certain ex-offenders in these nonviolent cases, we offered a path back to society that has opportunities for good jobs and improved education. These reforms passed with strong bipartisan votes in both chambers of the General Assembly.
We fully implemented Connecticut’s “Raise the Age” initiative and we have seen arrests and detention of juveniles plummet to historic lows. The number of young adults aged 18-21 arrested last year was down 53 percent from 2009. For that same age group, the number of inmates in prison and jail has dropped 55 percent in those same seven years. Connecticut’s total prison and jail population is down 25 percent since 2008 and total corrections budget is down 12 percent since just last year. And the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2011 has resulted in 6,000 fewer criminal arrests each year.
And we’re already seeing results. Crime in Connecticut is near a 50-year low and our state prison population is at its lowest point in two decades. In our largest three cities, violent crime is down 15 percent between 2008 and 2014. And while the statistics are impressive, the stories behind them are even more compelling. By getting rid of mandatory minimums for drug offenses, we have ensured families in our inner cities face the same justice system as those in our leafy suburbs. We’ve managed to be tough on crime by being smart on crime. We are using our resources to fund education and reintegration efforts instead of filling prison beds. We are working to ensure those who leave our prisons and jails are able to easily return to their families and turn their lives around.
I’m also proud of Connecticut programs that work directly in communities. For instance, in Hartford, we’ve put $1.425 million toward an education program that provides on-the-job and employment training for those leaving incarceration. Statewide, we’re supporting the expansion of the Connecticut Collaboration on Re-Entry, our successful initiative that provides housing and treatment programming for those with substance abuse and mental health issues. And with a $1 million investment in the School-Based Diversion Initiative, we are tackling the school-to-prison pipeline. This is how we help ensure those who come from an impoverished background aren’t stuck there and stop the revolving door of incarceration in our state.
We’re on the path to a brighter future in Connecticut, tackling the socioeconomic disparities in our justice system while reducing crime rates. What’s more, voters here and across the nation overwhelmingly support these reforms regardless of their political affiliation. What we’ve done here in Connecticut can be replicated across the country, and at the federal level.
Smart justice reforms reduce crime and save money. Connecticut’s results prove it.
Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, is the governor of Connecticut.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Times.