Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has not been shy about his desire to expand last year’s Second Chance law, which eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.
But it’s unclear how much muscle he’ll be able to flex in an Election year where lawmakers from at least 165 districts will be running for re-election. At least 22 lawmakers have announced they won’t be seeking re-election.
The House and the Senate both failed to pass Malloy’s Second Chance 2.0 legislation that would raise the age at which a defendant is still considered a juvenile, and it would release most defendants accused of misdemeanors on a promise-to-appear in court.
The House is expected to take up the legislation before July 1. As an insurance policy on getting lawmakers to return for another session day, Democratic leadership opted not to vote on a bonding package Friday that included money for school construction. The Senate, where the vote is expected to be tight, will let the House tackle the bill first.
On Monday, Malloy led a community forum at The Kitchen at the Hartford Public Library, which prides itself on hiring ex-offenders. Markus Keaton and Cord Madison, two ex-offenders who work at The Kitchen, sat on either side of Malloy.
Keaton benefited from the Cybulski Community Reintegration Center that was created in April 2015 in the spirit of second chances. Meanwhile, Madison has been working for The Kitchen for three years after being locked up for seven on assault and firearm charges dating back to when he was 17 years old.
Malloy said both men are examples of why he’s working so hard to change the current system of crime and punishment.
Malloy admitted that he thinks there are lawmakers who are “fearful of political outcomes.”
Changing the criminal justice system, which a critic might see as being “soft on crime,” is a “tough issue in an Election year. It may be a tough issue any year.”
Malloy said it’s a complicated issue, but that’s no reason for lawmakers to shy away from it.
The legislation isn’t only partisan though. It cuts a divide among Democrats who represent urban, suburban, and rural districts.
That divide can sometimes be along racial lines, too.
Malloy said there’s a disparate racial impact.
“I don’t think we got tough on crime because we wanted to disproportionately affect a racial group,” Malloy said. “But we now know that . . . getting tough on crime led to some really bad things.”
Those policies have caused both short-term and long-term problems for the state, which pays $161 per night per defendant to jail those who can’t post bond amounts between $250 and $2,000. And then there’s the long-term consequences of these individuals not finding employment opportunities when they get out. According to Malloy, there’s about $15 million in savings included as part of the budget that assumes this legislation will be implemented. Malloy said the savings come from reducing the amount of pre-trial incarceration among low-level, but poor offenders.
As for raising the age at which a defendant is considered a juvenile, Malloy said the state has seen great results from raising it from 16 to 17.
“Our incarceration rate is 52 percent lower than it was five, six, seven years ago,” Malloy said. “If we keep people out of jail under the age of 22, they’re far less likely to be incarcerated at any time in their life.”
Allowing defendants under the age of 21 to avoid getting a record in the first place is the reason the Malloy administration proposed the legislation — researchers say people’s brains are not fully developed at age 21.
Nearly 60 percent of the current pre-trial population currently sitting in Connecticut’s jails are Black or Hispanic, when those minority groups only make up about 22 percent of Connecticut’s population.
“I’m pushing it so hard because it’s life-changing,” Malloy said, and he cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from a jail in Birmingham: “For every day that goes by with no change, more damage is being done.”
Malloy said if lawmakers want to ignore what he’s trying to do with this latest legislation, then they would have to deny what has already been accomplished. Under Malloy’s 2015 Second Chance proposal, the legislature agreed to lower the mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.
The 2015 law also reduced the penalty for drug possession near schools or day care centers from a two-year mandatory prison sentence to a class A misdemeanor. The charge yields a sentence of prison or probation or both — although it’s no longer a mandatory prison term — and community service as a requirement of probation.
Republican legislative leaders who supported the initial law are not supporting Malloy’s attempt to expand it.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, has said there are no votes in his caucus for the measure.
“While I supported last year’s Second Chance legislation, the legislation proposed by the governor this year goes too far,” Fasano said Monday. “It is too broad, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize these flaws. This bill is having a hard time because it’s simply bad policy.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, criticized Democratic leadership for choosing to hold up passage of a school construction bill as motivation to return for another one-day special session on Second Chance 2.0.
“The Second Chance bill did not have the votes to pass when it came up in the regular session and again in the special session,” Klarides said. “We had important business to finish, namely the school construction bill that many towns and cities are counting on. To hold that hostage in order to get your own deeply flawed, pet legislation approved that lacks support, is unconscionable.”
House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said they’re talking to their members to find out everyone’s schedule to see when might be a good time to return.
However, “I think there still needs to be a lot of discussion on that bill to ensure we have the votes to pass it,” Aresimowicz said Monday.
There are still ongoing discussions between lawmakers and the administration about what the final bill would look like, he added.
Malloy administration officials have said the governor isn’t backing down on this issue.