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During a Monday roundtable, a group of New Haven clergy and young people offered U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy some ideas for addressing the damaging and cyclical impact of widespread incarceration on communities.

Murphy hosted the discussion at Newhallville Community Center seeking to build on the momentum of sentencing reforms outlined by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The attorney general called upon federal prosecutors to stop using fixed-length prison sentences for low-level drug users with no connection to organized crime.

Murphy cited the nation’s soaring prison population, which he said has grown by 800 percent in the last 25 years.

“That trend is killing our communities. Now, I’m telling you something that you know,” he said to the dozens of people gathered in the community center. “. . . You all are living with the consequences of a very broken justice system and a very broken prison system.”

Capria Marks, 17, told Murphy that she has watched several of her friends go to jail on charges like drug possession. She said the process takes a toll on everyone involved.

“Watching your friends leave you is one of the most hardest things,” she said, adding that incarceration seems to change people. “. . . You see life sucked out of them when they go in jail. It’s like they’re not even the same person. It seems like it’s harder for them to smile, harder for them to laugh.”

Murphy said he is hoping to use the discussion and Holder’s announcement to build support in Congress to re-examine the nation’s criminal justice system. He said he wanted to see the federal government adopt juvenile sentencing policies similar to those passed in Connecticut.

“I think we have an opportunity to make some common sense changes to the way we run our court systems so we can have less people in prison, more people with their families, and actually have a criminal justice system that focuses on addressing the problems that get people in trouble in the first place,” he said. 

Murphy said Connecticut has decriminalized certain juvenile offenses like truancy in an effort to keep kids from entering the prison system early. He said the state also has focused on moving kids out of prisons and into community settings. Murphy said he plans to introduce federal legislation to build upon the state’s successes.

Although Murphy talked about some of his ideas, he opened up the discussion to suggestions and feedback.

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D. White, a 28-year-old New Haven resident, said that if officials want to see fewer young people in the criminal justice system they need to pour more resources into their communities. That means more neighborhood events, more community centers, and more funding for after-school programs, he said, adding that the funding could help to stop a cycle of recidivism.

“You’ve got to get them out of the system but what are you going to do afterward? They will get themselves caught back up . . . into the system, because they need to provide for their families. Most families are single mothers, fathers not around or whatever. It may be because they’re locked up. They resort to selling drugs to survive,” he said.

Murphy suggested that the government could refocus some of its resources away from incarcerating people and dedicate them to the types of programs that White suggested. He said it costs around $240,000 annually to incarcerate a minor in the Connecticut Juvenile Training School.

“That’s one kid. Think of what that money could do in the community. Think of how many kids that that could provide after school services to, if instead of locking them up, you put the money into New Haven. What we’re talking about is not new money,” he said.

Maurice Williams, a lifelong New Haven resident and community outreach coordinator for the Yale University School of Medicine, suggested pairing kids with positive adult mentors. Not every young man will have his father around, but Williams said that should not mean they do not have a positive role model. He said it is the responsibility of everyone in a community to take care its youth.

“When you see a little kid that walks down the street with no direction, that is the fault of the whole community. That is not just that person’s parent,” he said.

Murphy agreed, saying that research consistently indicates that mentoring initiatives are among the most successful programs.

“Other programs have impacts too, but the one that consistently changes lives and changes outcomes is the mentoring program,” he said.

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State Sen. Toni Harp, a New Haven lawmaker who is seeking the Democratic nomination in the city’s mayoral race, said she felt that the “criminalization of addiction” was central to the challenges facing cities like New Haven.

“There really needs to be a sophisticated conversation about how we criminalize something that is really a behavioral health issue and how much pain and suffering that causes in our community,” she said.

But that’s easier said than done. Harp said she did not think there was enough political support to make any changes on the issue.

“I don’t expect anything to be done, but it would be remiss if I didn’t say that we’re really sort of dancing around the issue,” she said.