Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s criminal justice reform package is now law — which includes reducing penalties for minor drug possession and enacting a series of measures to reduce reoffending.
But he has already said more reform is on the horizon.
Criminal justice reform was once a third-rail of American politics and the Second Chance Society didn’t pass without a few bumps. So it is reasonable to ask if additional measures stand a chance. Here are five reasons why the Second Chance Society passed, which bode well for the future of criminal justice reform in the state.
1. A Record Locally and Nationally: The great boxing trainer, Teddy Atlas, once said, “Success is like a martini. It relaxes you.” The public has reasonable anxieties when lawmakers talk about cutting the prison population not the least of which is a rise in crime. But Connecticut’s reforms have illustrated that more arrests and prisoners does not equal less crime. In fact, quite the opposite. As the state cut its prison population by 20 percent since 2008, crime simultaneously fell to a 48-year low. According to the governor’s office, as criminal arrests took a 28 percent dip, violent crime plunged 36 percent. Offering treatment to people with drug dependencies and mental health issues, instead of jail time, can address the root causes of crime and free up police to focus on violent offenses instead. In other words, smart criminal justice reform makes communities safer, even when it entails getting certain people out of jail.
2. Bipartisanship: While the Second Chance Society met with some wrangling in a tough legislative climate, the reforms maintained strong bipartisan support. That shouldn’t be surprising. Criminal justice reform has something for everyone. Progressives like increased services in communities. Conservatives recognized that the bill would save money and put resources into more effective public safety interventions. What’s interesting is that Republicans and Democrats didn’t have wildly divergent messages on criminal justice reform. Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) said during the bill signing, “Drug addiction is a health issue, not necessarily a criminal issue. When you look at it in that light, you then begin to solve a problem that is facing not only our cities, but our suburbs as well.” Those are compassionate, pragmatic messages that would resonate with both progressives and conservatives.
3. Strange Bedfellows: The legislature wasn’t the only place where conservatives and progressives came together. The Second Chance Society garnered love from an unusual collection of allies including the ACLU of Connecticut, the Yankee Institute, Connecticut State Conference of NAACP Branches, the state Department of Correction, public health professionals, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Office of the Chief Public Defender, the African-American Affairs Commission, and many others. Our motley crew was not always as coordinated as we could have been in part because we so rarely see each other on the same side. How often does the NAACP and the ACLU find ideological kinship with Grover Norquist in the midst of a legislative session? It was a strange year but may be a sign of things to come.
4. Leadership from the Top: This was a signature issue for Governor Malloy but it shouldn’t be forgotten that other heavy-hitters in the state have strongly backed the “Second Chance Society.” Faith leaders—many involved with the Malta Justice Initiative— and the Connecticut Business & Industry Association came out in support of the bill. The CBIA, and some of its colleagues in local chambers of commerce, have argued for years that a healthy economy relies on a workforce that isn’t saddled with harmful criminal records for minor offenses. Business groups were particularly credible spokespeople for the economic incentives of a smarter criminal justice system, which benefits everyone regardless of party affiliation.
5. Broad Public Support: Voters overwhelmingly supported the reforms contained in the Second Chance Society bill. In March, Quinnipiac released a poll that revealed voters supported, by a 67 to 28 percent margin, reducing draconian penalties for small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor. By even greater margins, 82-to-15 percent, voters supported eliminating harmful mandatory minimum sentences for small amounts of illegal drugs. Our bloated prisons have failed to reduce crime, bankrupt states, left nonviolent people in desperate circumstances and devastated communities. Those failures are obvious to all and becoming more apparent by the day. There isn’t always unanimous agreement on the fixes but the need is obvious. While proposed measures require some salesmanship, people are ready to listen.
The governor hasn’t said exactly what he’ll propose for next year. But these five factors put the wind at his back on criminal justice reform.
David McGuire (@DavidMcGuireEsq), is Legislative and Policy Director, and Patrick Gallahue (@PatrickGallahue), is Communications Director, for the ACLU of Connecticut (@acluct).
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