The two-year budget Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposes this month will assume savings from a set of criminal justice reforms he announced this week, but the governor was not ready Wednesday to say how much.
“Everything we’re doing here will be included in the budget. We’ll talk about the budget when we get there,” Malloy said after a roundtable discussion with Hartford community leaders on the criminal justice proposals he announced Tuesday.
The governor wants to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences that accompany some nonviolent drug possession crimes and make those crimes misdemeanors rather than felonies. His proposals also would speed up parole hearings for low-risk inmates and ease the process by which ex-offenders earn a full pardon.
The package, which Malloy has called a “second chance society” initiative, is geared at giving ex-offenders a better shot at employment and reducing the risk that they will commit additional crimes and return to prison.
“We have for too long now been a country that turns its back on people that made mistakes and actually was engaging in forms of lifelong or permanent punishment. And applying those levels of punishment to nonviolent offenders doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you think about it,” Malloy said.
If passed, the proposals would likely further reduce the state’s prison population, which has dropped more than 10 percent since 2010. The resulting reduction could spell savings for an administration drafting a two-year budget that must address more than $1 billion in projected deficits in each year.
Malloy said savings associated with criminal justice reforms would grow over time.
“We have lessoned very substantially the number of people in prison at the same time we’ve lowered crime. So I think it plays itself out over a period of time. It will start to produce results immediately and the results will grow over time,” Malloy said.
On Tuesday, Malloy’s budget secretary Ben Barnes said he believes there will be savings in the Correction Department budget based on reductions in incarceration, but “it is a real challenge to find ways to make those savings realized.”
The cost of incarcerating people is “complicated,” Barnes said. “It takes a real management and organizational effort to find ways to right-size the prison system to match the new demands.”
During the roundtable discussion, Hartford community leaders commended the proposals, which Malloy fleshed out Wednesday with a new job training initiative at the state Labor Department.
The Rev. Dion Watkins, of Mt. Olive Church, said some of his parishioners with felony records continue to struggle to find work.
“The common thread is ‘pastor, I’ve been locked up, I’ve gone to prison, I need another opportunity to work,’” he said. “The biggest thing is employment. Once I’ve been locked up — number one, how do I get reintegrated back into regular society and how can I find work. Because if they don’t find work right away . . . it’s going to continue to be this cycle that’s been going on.”
If adopted by the legislature, Malloy’s proposal to eliminate fixed sentences for drug possession crimes also would settle a longstanding debate between urban legislators and lawmakers from more rural communities over a law requiring a mandatory punishment for drug possession in a school zone.
The current policy is an issue in urban communities where the school zones make up most, if not entire cities. As a result, anyone who’s convicted of a drug charge in those cities faces a stiffer penalty. Urban lawmakers have tried to change the law for years, calling it unfair, but many suburban and rural legislators oppose the change.
Although his proposal would eliminate the mandatory minimum penalty inside a school zone, Malloy said he didn’t think they need to discuss that issue.
“What we have to have a discussion about is, does it make sense to treat mere possession as a felony, particularly when these are individuals who in many cases have mental health challenges, have addiction challenges?” Malloy said. “What we’re doing is we’re making people unemployable for life.”
Malloy said the issue should not be a regional problem.
“I don’t think anyone in New Canaan or Darien wants their child who may be arrested with a controlled substance to have a felony and I don’t think anybody in New Haven wants that to happen,” he said. “If we treated alcohol, for instance, the same way we treat some of these drugs there’d be a lot of people with felony convictions.”