Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced a series of criminal justice reform proposals this week that he was calling “Second Chance Society.” The name comes from the idea that his proposals will give a second chance to people who might have found themselves in prison for minor offenses, but really these proposals, and the door they open, give that chance to everyone else as well.
Here’s the quick rundown of the proposed changes: first, drug offenses will be reclassified, and possession/use will be a misdemeanor. Second, non-violent drug possession will have no more mandatory minimums. Third, parole hearings and pardons will be streamlined, and fourth, re-entry programs for people returning to the community from prison will be strengthened.
This may not sound like much, but it’s huge.
Getting rid of mandatory minimums will keep people from serving long sentences for small crimes, and give judges leeway to explore alternative sentences like community service and rehabilitation. Reclassifying drug offenses as lesser crimes will possibly allow for re-sentencing of many already-incarcerated offenders and keep new offenders out of prison. Streamlining pardons and parole are obvious ways to make sure deserving prisoners can leave the system, and stronger re-entry programs will help them adjust and find work when they get home.
These proposals are long overdue. Finally, we’re starting to make some progress in undoing the awful legacy of the past 30 years.
Mandatory minimums and tough sentences for drug crimes are a relic of the miserable, paranoid, “tough on crime” days of the 1980s and 1990s, when everyone was terrified of inner-city drug-related crime. It’s also a relic of the failed War on Drugs, which is a major reason why our prison population has exploded since 1980.
The statistics on prisons are pretty grim. There’s around 2.2 million people incarcerated in American prisons or jails, which is about two thirds of the entire population of Connecticut. In 1980, by comparison, that population was around 350,000.
Tough sentencing laws, especially those surrounding the crusade against illegal drugs, have driven the change. About half of all federal prisoners are in prison for drug-related crimes.
This is incredibly bad for our country. Prisons are misery factories; they do nothing but hurt and debase the people confined there. And when prisoners are set free, thanks to the scarcity of programs to help them re-adjust to life outside, they often land right back where they started. It’s a nasty, heartbreaking cycle.
What we end up with is a society where problems are solved with incarceration instead of rehabilitation and, thanks to lingering institutional racism in our courts and police, a shockingly higher relative percentage of persons of color who find themselves behind bars.
Our incarceration rate and prison population is higher than anywhere else in the world. It’s a national shame.
This is why these proposals, and proposals like them, are so important. By getting rid of mandatory minimums and reclassifying drug offenses, we have an opportunity to finally start reducing our prison population in a noticeable, meaningful way.
Connecticut’s prison population has actually been edging downward from a high of over 19,000 in 2008, and the latest number is the lowest it’s been since 1999. Still, the number of people we have locked up is still nearly twice what it was in 1990, and hopefully these reforms will help that number continue to fall.
This will have several effects on the rest of us. Crime has been falling for decades, so don’t expect it to rise noticeably if and when these reforms take effect. However, we should find that state government becomes somewhat cheaper to run. Gov. Malloy has