Connecticut Law Tribune: Lawyer’s Book Says Conn. Should Slash Prison Population
Lawyer says reforms should emphasize support programs over incarceration
Amaris Elliott-Engel, The Connecticut Law Tribune
It’s not every day that red-state Texas is pointed out as a paragon for reform that blue-state Connecticut should emulate.
But the author of a new book calling for a mass overhaul of Connecticut’s criminal justice system says that Connecticut should adopt some of the best practices that have helped Texas reduce its prison population. Texas has reduced the number of inmates so much that the Lone Star State is closing prisons.
Brian Moran, a partner at Robinson & Cole in Stamford, is the principal author of the book: “The Justice Imperative: How Hyper-Incarceration Has Hijacked the American Dream.”
Moran notes that Connecticut’s prison population has grown from 3,800 inmates in 1980 to almost 17,000 as of January 2014. Meanwhile, the state spends more than $1 billion annually on incarceration costs, but well more than half the prisoners who are released end up back behind bars.
Federal prisons and state correctional facilities all have seen their populations explode because of the 40-year war on drugs, Moran said. It is estimated that in that time period, the penal population in the U.S. grew from 300,000 to more than 2 million.
But other states are further along in enacting reforms to steer more nonviolent offenders away from prison or to establish programming that helps ex-cons reintegrate into society after they finish doing their time, Moran said. “The 40-year war on drugs … is potentially affecting another generation of kids,” Moran said. “We think it’s long overdue for Connecticut to get onboard with this battle.”
Linda Meyer, a Quinnipiac University School of Law professor and who was on the book’s writing committee, said “everyone’s intuition is that the more people you incarcerate, the less crime you have. We’re trying to get the message out that is wrong.”
The Connecticut juvenile justice system has taken steps that could offer guidance to the adult justice system, the authors argue. Even as the state has transferred more young lawbreakers from adult courts into the juvenile system, it has placed fewer juveniles in detention facilities and put a greater emphasis on rehabilitative programs. That focus has lowered recidivism rates, Moran says.
Similarly, the book says, the state should expand nonincarceration programs for adult offenders, ranging from transitional housing units for ex-cons to treatment programs for people with substance abuse issues and mental illness.
Moran and the coalition that backed his book project suggest that Connecticut should strive to cut its prison population in half in the next five years, close half of its prisons in five years, reduce recidivism rates by 30 percent in five years and reduce state spending on the prison system by half.
The books makes 30 recommendations for alternatives to incarceration, improving the reentry process, new legislation, new policies the executive branch could undertake and initiatives the Department of Correction could undertake.
Some of the recommendations include:
• Eliminate the requirement that inmates must serve 85 percent of a sentence for crimes classified as violent.
• Adopt reforms that allow for early parole and more time off for good behavior.
• Allocate one-third of any cost savings realized from reducing the prison population toward educational programs and vocational training aimed at reducing recidivism.
• Give judges more discretion in handing out sentences, “including the use of … offender-based data systems, sentencing-support analytics and mandatory offender family impact statements to facilitate informed decision-making.”
• Provide employers who hire ex-offenders with tax incentives as well as immunity from liability.
When states such as Texas have enacted these sorts of reforms, and have reinvested savings in treatment, education and providing support to former inmates, they have also seen a reduction in the rate of crime, Moran said. Orienting Connecticut’s criminal justice system in this way would provide a “trifecta of benefits: lower costs, lower recidivism and improved public safety,” Moran said.
He added that there is a fourth benefit: Better success at achieving the “holy grail of corrections,” which is to rehabilitate inmates and restore them to their families.
Moran, who practices in commercial litigation with an emphasis on antitrust, intellectual property and licensing disputes, was drawn to the topic of criminal justice because of his friend William Fox’s involvement with the Malta Justice Initiative. The Southport-based group has an active prison ministry providing support to people who are incarcerated. It is overseen by a Roman Catholic religious order called The Sovereign Military Hospitalier Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta.
John Santa, who is chairman of the initiative, said the gist of the book is about “more effective and compassionate treatment when [inmates are] in and more effective support when they’re out and reentering.” The group says that while Moran is the main author, the book is a collaborative effort, including the input from a bipartisan coalition of businesspeople, correctional professionals, legislators, judges, law enforcement professionals, lawyers, ministers and academics in Connecticut.
Moran also was drawn to the book because of reading Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” in which she argued that young black men, who go to prison for drug crimes 20 to 50 times more often than young white men do, are “part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.”
The racial disparity in the criminal justice system is no different in Connecticut than it is nationally, Moran said. Blacks and Latinos make up 24 percent of Connecticut’s overall population but they comprise 66 percent of the prison population.
That is another reason for criminal justice reform in Connecticut, Moran said. “There are two Connecticuts,” he said, “the inner cities and what is happening outside of the bigger cities.”
For more information on “The Justice Imperative: How Hyper-Incarceration Has Hijacked the American Dream,” visit http://thejusticeimperative.org.