After Governor Dannell P. Malloy signed a long-awaited “Second Chance Society” bill into law, New Haven State Sen. Gary Winfield started looking toward the next criminal justice reform battles.
Winfield was one of several legislators and community leaders who watched Malloy (pictured) ceremonially sign the law Thursday afternoon at New Haven’s new Small Business Academy in Dixwell Plaza—one of two ceremonial signings planned for the day.
The state House and Senate approved the bill in a June 29 special session in late June. Combined with a second criminal-justice bill passed that day, it included reforms that New Haven legislators like Winfield and Sen. Martin Looney have pursued for years.
The law allows non-violent offenders a “second chance” to become productive members of society by making drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony, streamlining the parole process, eliminating extra penalties for drug offenders in “drug-free zones” (i.e. entire cities), eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, and supporting programs to train ex-offenders for jobs and house them.
The next step, according to Winfield?
“Everyone knows there’s much more to do. The law has to extend to people doing things we aren’t comfortable with [like dealing]. It cannot just be people who we see as having a medical issue,” he said at the event. “I’m happy but people should expect me to come back with that other part next year.”
When asked if Connecticut might follow in New York City’s footsteps and relax bail requirements for low-level offenders, Winfield said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if state legislators discussed that reform in the future. “It has been a conversation in the past.”
Mayor Toni Harp called the “reintegration of incarcerated citizens a priority” for the city.
“With education, counseling, job training, these former inmates can and want to be productive after their release,” she said. Non-violent offenders “can be brought back to our community with a greatly reduced risk,” if they have access to services and jobs.
Malloy said the country was founded by and for people who “came here for a second chance ... Somehow and somewhere we lost our way,” focusing on “permanent punishment” instead of “permanent reform.” Many offenders are in jail for “simple drug possession” and suffer from anxiety and depression, which are “debilitating” illnesses.
The second-chance law is one of numerous prison-clearing measures states being passed by state legislatures from Utah to South Carolina to New Jersey, supported by both Democrats and Republicans pursuing alternatives to incarceration. Cracking down on non-violent offenders and keeping them in prison is “as if we would cut our nose to spite our face and that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time,” Malloy said.
The fact that Malloy signed the law does not automatically mean employers and universities will comply, noted Clifton Graves (pictured above at left), director of Project Fresh Start, the city’s prison reentry program.
“We’re very excited and encouraged” by the law, Graves said, especially given the fact that more than a hundred “young men and women are released [from prison] every month unskilled and untrained being thwarted and impeded about misconceptions about the past.”
It will be a “formidable challenge” to fight some of the legal battles alongside the new law, to lower “structural barriers” that still exist, Graves said. Many employers still refuse to hire people with records.
State Senate Minority Leaders Len Fasano attended Thursday’s signing. Malloy said he was “happy that ultimately this became a bipartisan piece of legislation.”
Malloy signed part of his name with each of 15 pens, which he handed out to the legislators standing behind him.