NEW HAVEN >> John S. Santa has been successful in the fuel oil and energy business, but his real passion is trying to reduce the population of non-violent offenders in the state’s correctional system and to help those who are released into a society that turns its back on ex-offenders.
Santa and the Rev. Marilyn B. Kendrix, associate pastor of Church of the Redeemer, United Church of Christ, met with the New Haven Register’s editorial board Tuesday as members of the Malta Justice Initiative, which is, among other things, supporting Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” proposals to reduce the human and financial costs of the state’s criminal justice system.
The group has met with 45 groups, such as civic clubs and churches and found ignorance about the extent of the issue.
“They didn’t know our incarceration rate was nine times that of Germany per 100,000,” Santa said. “They didn’t know that in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, in the 1990s, we finished a new prison every two weeks. … When they found out what they’re paying for that, they weren’t very happy. And when they further found out what the result was, and that was that six out of 10 people having been incarcerated are back in [prison] within three years, they were very disappointed and they wanted to do something.”
But the group hasn’t stopped there. They plan to hold a legislative breakfast, sponsored by Democratic and Republican leaders, to promote Malloy’s initiatives, which would budget an additional $1 million for school-based diversion programs, reduce drug possession to a misdemeanor and “eliminate mandatory minimum sentences drug possession” when a weapon is not involved, as several states have done.
Malloy also would “streamline” parole hearings for such inmates and make full pardons easier to receive after “several years of responsible citizenship.”
Santa, who called Malloy’s proposals “a bold step,” said that once the Order of Malta members investigated the issue, “We saw a new mission for us to educate and inform the public, because we know this: The rubber meets the road up on Capitol Avenue. The rubber meets the road when a law is made. The rubber meets the road when a budget is set.”
The order has also published a book, “The Justice Imperative: How Hyper-Incarceration Has Hijacked the American Dream,” which portrays “Connecticut as a kind of case study,” Kendrix said, and which has 30 recommendations for improvements. It has been distributed to all state lawmakers and students at Yale Divinity School.
The group has also targeted business, academic and faith communities because of their “vested interest.” Houses of worship have a mission to see people as redeemable, Santa said, and business communities can easily see that “we can identify readily $1 billion we’re spending in the state of Connecticut every year but we do think the peripheral costs approaches closer to $2 billion” in courts, police and criminal justice programs.
Much of their work is educating the public about how severe the problem is in a country that incarcerates 2.2 million people, more than 36 countries combined, including Russia.
“I felt like I was a fairly intelligent person … and well read,” Kendrix said, “and yet I was surprised by a lot of the information about how our criminal justice system works in America. I did not know about mass incarceration. And so I felt like, if I didn’t know, surely there are other people out there, good people of faith who would be concerned if they did know.”
Kendrix preaches at other churches besides her own, mostly United Churches of Christ, but others as well. A onetime manager at AT&T, Kendrix changed her career later in life and graduated from Yale Divinity School.
“I had pretty much convinced that congregation of the United Church of Christ that this is an issue that all good people of faith who were concerned about human justice should be concerned about. They support my preaching and teaching about mass incarceration at other churches two Sundays a month.
“We also understand that our legislators need to know that these are issues that are of concern to their constituents such that they will feel like they don’t have to beat the ‘tough on crime’ drum in order to get elected and stay elected. … We can redeem these people who have been caught up in this system so that they become law-abiding and contribute to our tax base rather than a drain on it.”
Santa said the legislative breakfast represents a “tectonic shift” in the legislature but Kendrix said awareness is still too low in the general public when it comes to awareness of the issue and its costs.
For example, from 1980 to 1985, according to “The Justice Imperative,” Connecticut spent $1 billion to expand its prisons and jails, and most of the inmates are incarcerated on minor drug charges, parole violations or minor crimes.
“When I speak to groups either in churches or, since we wrote the book, secular audiences as well, folks are amazed, shocked, didn’t know, didn’t understand, thought the war on drugs was something that happened in the ’80s and is over,” Kendrix said. “We live in a sound-bite society and ‘tough on crime’ is the sound bite. And it’s my goal to help people think about this issue in a more complex way.”
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