A day after the judiciary committee held a public hearing on 15 proposals submitted by various people on how to reform Connecticut’s criminal justice system, I finally have the time to sit down and put my thoughts down on
paper screen (I know you’ve all been dying to hear from me on this).
I see this as a golden opportunity going to waste. If the legislature is going to conduct a comprehensive reform of the system, then they need to do it right.
Undoubtedly, there is a class of defendants that poses a very real risk to society and public safety and if there is to be any legislation that strengthens penalties for these folks, then it needs to be tailored very specifically to affect only those people. It is very clear, despite any protestations to the contrary, that these hearings are a direct response to Cheshire and Cheshire only. I think legislators might have a bit more credibility if they admitted that at the outset.
Having said that, I have to disagree with the prevailing sentiment that there are serious offenders out there getting community service. It just isn’t happening. If you spent any time talking to prosecutors or public defenders in any of the Part A courts, you will know that the sentences for first, second or third time offenders of serious felonies are in double digits, usually starting with a 2 or 3.
If there are any hippie liberal judges in this State handing out reprimands instead of jail sentences on a daily basis, please let me know. I don’t know of any and I bet if you ask any practitioner in the State, they couldn’t name one either. The reality is that sentences are high and sentences are harsh. Which is how we arrived at the prison overcrowding problem in the first place.
Another common theme in the proposals has been mandatory minimums. I was very glad to see the Judicial Branch, led by Chief Judge Quinn and Judge Pat Clifford, come out against this. Defendants are people and should be treated on an individual basis. A Federal sentencing guideline type scheme is the last thing we want in this State. It removes any sort of authority vested in judges and under the guise of treating people equally, treats them more unequally than before. Judges should have the authority to consider the specific facts of each case and each defendant and determine the appropriate sentence. Again, there are no liberal judges in this State. Honestly.
Which brings me to why I think this could become a missed opportunity. While the legislature is considering the strengthening of punishment for a certain class of people, it is must also consider how to deal with overcrowding and how we came to it in the first place. It must deal with the Gov.’s promise of releasing non-violent offenders to make room and the wisdom in that. It must deal with ensuring that no one, not a single offender commits another offense upon release.
That is truly in the interests of public safety. Almost every inmate will at some point be released. In order to keep the public safe, the legislature must ensure that these people have no incentive to reoffend. Rehabilitation has long since been abandoned as a goal of corrections and the legislature should use this opportunity to rectify that. When an inmate is released after a prolonged period of incarceration, without an education, without any employable skills and definitely without any money, it is no surprise that a return to a life of crime is a foregone conclusion. This is not necessarily because they like crime, but mostly because they have no other choice. Left in the middle of one of CT’s large cities, with no hope for the future; no job to provide an income, no skills with which to obtain a job, it is very tempting for people to return to the quick and easy: selling drugs, robbing a bodega, etc. This only further puts public safety at risk. If we want to avoid that; if we want to give people a reason not to reoffend, them it is our responsibility to provide them with the tools to do so.
More halfway houses, more educations programs, more vocational programs will not only be a more effective use of money right now, but it will also pay great dividends in the future in terms of lower law enforcement costs and greater public safety.
More prisons is not the answer. Preventing people from going back to prison is a more logical and useful solution.
For other people’s takes on this, read CTLP’s posts here and here, the New Haven Independent continues its terrific work here, the Connecticut Post has a story here, the Norwalk Advocate has one here, something from The Day here and the Courant’s coverage is here. PDF files of all the testimony submitted to the Committee are here and Senator McDonald offered his thoughts here.
Sorry for the long post.