Connecticut — which not long ago was seen as a pioneer for needed reform — can again lead the way toward the creation of a fiscally-responsible, far more effective, compassionate system of criminal justice and corrections.
To do so requires courage on the part of our elected representatives and appointed State officials. We challenge them and ourselves to be great. We dare all Connecticut citizens to lead the nation in charting a more effective, safe and compassionate course. A course that will serve the interests of all Connecticut citizens, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, urban and suburban, black, white and Hispanic.
Anyone who doubts that Connecticut cannot speed up its right-sizing and reform efforts need only look at what Delaware has accomplished over the past two years.
In 2011, Delaware was faced with a crisis — budget shortfalls, a rising crime rate and overcrowded and costly prisons. Delaware ranked fourth in the nation in violent crimes. Its arrest rate was one in 332, as compared with the national average of one in 529. So how did Delaware respond? First, it applied to participate in U.S. Justice Department’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative or JRI program.
Second, its governor convened a task force in July of 2011 to study the state’s criminal justice system and identify ways to reduce its inmate population, generate cost-savings, increase public safety and reduce recidivism. On the strength of the JRI initiative, the work of the task force and a critical assessment conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, Delaware passed legislation in June, 2012, less than one year after the Governor’s formation of the task force. A copy of Delaware’s 2012 Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation Act is included in Appendix 2.
The new law overhauled the state’s criminal justice system. The legislative and policy changes were focused on (1) reducing the state’s large pretrial and pre-sentence prison population by allowing for supervised release of those who did not pose an undue risk to public safety (such low-risk pretrial group took up 14% of the state’s prison beds in 2010), (2) drastically curtailing the re-incarceration of offenders who were merely guilty of technical probation violations (such group occupied 13% of the state’s prison beds in 2010), (3) reducing the length of prison stays (the average length of prison terms in Delaware was three years, as compared with the national average of two years), and (4) increasing the use of evidence-based best practices, including implementation of pretrial risk assessments, adoption of appropriate responses to supervision violations short of re-incarceration, and the expanded use of programs that addressed the treatment needs of offenders and enhanced their prospects of successful re-entry. The task force projected that its suggested reforms could reduce the prison population by 18% and save over $27 million within five years, which monies could be reinvested in the state’s efforts to lower recidivism and increase public safety.
There is, in our view, no justifiable reason why Connecticut cannot act with similar speed to adopt and carry out similar reforms. Indeed, it is imperative that we do so.
There are a number of ways for individuals to become meaningfully involved in bringing about favorable changes to Connecticut’s criminal justice system. For example:
— Share the information in this book with others;
— Buy a book and give it to a friend, neighbor, or business associate;
— Write, telephone, email or visit your elected officials to advocate for specific legislative proposals;
— Volunteer with social service agencies involved with inmates, former offenders and their families; most organizations in this field are under-resourced and would welcome volunteers;
— Write Letters to the Editor and Op Ed pieces for newspapers and other media;
— Identify fraternal, church, civic, industry and other groups that might be receptive to presentations about the State’s criminal justice system and incarceration practices; and
— Hire qualified ex-offenders.
The single most impactful change would be to break down existing barriers and make it easier for ex-offenders to get jobs. The ongoing stigma of convicted felons and the collateral obstacles they face upon their release from prison often effectively preclude them from the job market. Understandably, many employers who hire former offenders do not acknowledge it publicly. Consequently, we do not have many high profile employers of former offenders to serve as role models.
As a society, we need to acknowledge there are about 7,000 offenders being released to our communities in Connecticut each year. Do we want former offenders in our communities with jobs or without jobs? Do we want to place former offenders in a position to succeed? to become breadwinners? to become responsible parents? and to give back to their communities by serving as role models, particularly to young offenders?
Having a job shortly after release from prison is a key determinant of whether a former offender will return to prison or not. Aside from being self-supportive, the pride and personal satisfaction of having a job adds considerably to their successful re-integration into the community.
This is not to suggest that former offenders be given preferential treatment, but rather that qualified ex-offenders be given the same opportunity for consideration of employment as others. By qualified, we mean offenders working with a competent social service agency like Career Resources. Employment applications that specifically inquire about arrests or felony convictions (particularly non-violent ones) significantly impede the hiring of former offenders. Checking the “Box” frequently ends the employment process, irrespective of other qualifications (including education and vocational training received while incarcerated).
For the betterment of society, employers need to re-evaluate policies and practices that restrict hiring former offenders, most of whom, as we have noted herein, are non-violent offenders posing a low risk to the public. Recent studies indicate ex-offenders are generally MORE productive than their non-offender co-workers.
We understand that not all former offenders are ideal candidates for employment upon re-entry in the community. Nonetheless, many are “qualified” for employment, including those who successfully dealt with addictions, anger management and other personal issues, those who continue to be positively engaged with a social service agency’s re-entry program, those who are a part of a faith-based community, and, where appropriate, those who have participated in a restorative justice program. Employers, particularly smaller ones, can benefit considerably when there is a social services agency proactively involved with both former offenders and management.
There is considerable anecdotal evidence supporting the proposition that former offenders often perform better than or at least as well as other employees in terms of their work ethic, company loyalty and overall job performance. Perhaps because it is more difficult for former offenders to get a job, they are frequently more appreciative of the opportunity. Their motivation to keep the job and avoid unemployment is often striking. For many, the job they find upon re-entry represents their best and last opportunity to succeed in life.
Continuing to systematically ostracize ex-cons is simply not in society’s best interest. Other countries’ success in re-integrating offenders in the community demonstrates that rehabilitation and a better life is possible at no additional cost to public safety.
Connecticut is faced with the opportunity to revolutionize our country’s prevailing punitive approach to corrections and adopt a model focused on rehabilitation and social integration, more akin to that prevailing in Western Europe. Connecticut’s recent success in reforming its juvenile justice system affirms that the time for such a change is now. Dare to be great! Act on the justice imperative.
For more information please contact:
Malta Justice Initiative
33 Chester Place
P.O. Box 481
Southport, CT 06890-0481
Visit www.MaltaJusticeInitiative.org to learn more.