The Danbury News-Times (and apparently the Conn Post too) has this fantastic piece about the state of Connecticut’s prisons (you know, it’s really strange to be reading these stories about CT, when just six months ago, I used to read similar pieces with frequency about other states.)
From 1985 to Feb. 15, 2008, Connecticut’s prison population has soared from 5,422 to 19,690.
“It’s crazy,” concedes state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven. “We are spending more money to run our prisons than run our colleges.”
“Think about it,” said [lawyer Frederic] Ury, a former president of the Connecticut Bar Association. “In just a 20-year period, we have quadrupled the number of people in our prisons and no one seems to be concerned about it.”
So what is the reason for this staggering increase in the population? Certainly the war on drugs and reports over the years seem to show that it really hasn’t had much of an actual impact on the drug problem. But there’s also a trend towards longer sentences and inmates serving longer periods of their sentences, especially since the elimination of good time (not that there’s an actual statue repealing good time, but that’s a story for another day).
“That’s a big difference,” said Bridgeport State’s Attorney Jonathan Benedict. “I don’t think this office is seeking greater sentences for the same crime than we did when I started 30 years ago. But inmates are serving more time on their sentences than they were 30 years ago.”
Now with the three-strikes law back in the judiciary committee, the potential for a further increase in the population is even greater. So what is to be done about it? The only realistic option at this point is building another prison. I’m pretty sure the legislature isn’t the mood to look at actual reform, given their passage of the criminal justice bill that had less reform and more punishment.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell is also pushing a “three strikes” law that would impose life terms on those convicted of three serious felonies.
But Tracy, the convicted felon, believes that’s the most dangerous law the legislature could impose.
“You tell someone they’re going away for life if they get caught — well, they’re not going down easy,” he said. “They’re going to bring danger to themselves, the people around them, and the people who come to get them. That’s a high price to pay.”
With the state’s prisons bursting beyond their 18,000-plus capacity, Lawlor sees only three options. The most obvious, he said, is to build more prisons.
Finally, Lawlor said, “We can do nothing and face being sued in federal court. Then we’ll get a federal judge running our prisons.”
As I’ve said before on this blog, these are quick fixes and won’t serve the long-term problem. One of the smartest things I heard was on Colin McEnroe‘s radio show a few months ago. He was interviewing someone from Minnesota (I think; correct me if I’m wrong) Corrections, who said that we have to change expectations. Politicking is geared toward eliminating crime. That’s completely unrealistic and foolish to have as a goal, because it will never happen. Rather, we must work to reducing crime.
The way to do that is to look at what actually leads people to a life of crime. But there’s always very little interest in that. Not good politics and certainly not as surefire a way to retain your seat as locking people up is.
Stephen Cox, chairman of Central Connecticut State University’s criminology department, believes the best approach is to attack the reasons for crime.
“No one wants to hear about the factors that cause people to commit crimes — substance abuse, joblessness, homelessness,” [former CCDLA president Michael] Fitzpatrick said. “They just want them locked up and out of sight.”
“We can start by making bigger investments in our inner cities,” added Cox.
“We need politicians who will stop playing the sound-bite game,” said [Henry] Schissler, [a professor]. “We know the pieces that need to be fixed — better education, substance-abuse treatment programs, jobs with living wages — so why are we choosing not to fix them?”
Because it doesn’t sound as good and doesn’t get as many votes.