Using a Yale Law classroom as his backdrop, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy unveiled proposals Tuesday to move from locking up nonviolent criminals to helping them succeed in society.
“We cannot perpetually be a punitive society” focused on “swelling prisons” and “creating lifetime criminals out of people who made a mistake,” Malloy told the over 100 students, wardens and parole officials, and Democratic politicians and activists from around the state filling Yale Law School’s Room 127.
The governor, who last month began his second four-year term in office, called for building on reforms from his first term to create a “Second Chance Society” aimed at continuing the past four years’ declines in both violent crime and prison population.
The speech introduced the second sweeping policy goal Malloy has been rolling out for his second term. The first is an emerging “massive” and “comprehensive” rebuilding of the state’s highways, rail lines, bus system, bike routes, and pedestrian pathways over 25 years.
On Tuesday he offered five specific criminal-justice reforms he plans to pursue this coming legislative session:
• Making drug possession a misdemeanor, not a felony, unless the arrestee was also selling or intending to sell as well. Current polices are “creating lifetime offenders who struggle to find work and reintegrate into society,” Malloy argued. Better to save the $45,000 annual cost of locking them up and help them become productive citizens, he said.
• Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. He said 11 states, including red states like Arkansas and Georgia, have already “repealed or shortened mandatory minimums” since 2009.
• Making parole work more “efficiently and effectively” by streamlining the hearings process, including not requiring non-violent inmates to attend hearings.
• Making pardons “almost automatic” so that ex-offenders who go straight can more easily get jobs. He’d simplify the process for obtaining a pardon and automatically notify ex-offenders about how and when they can pursue pardons at their sentencing and upon completing their sentences. “People—young people—often make mistakes,” Malloy argued. “The road to full citizenship and real opportunity, a genuine second chance, should not be paved with overly burdensome legal land mines.”
• Creating new programs to house ex-offenders and train them for jobs, and boosting existing ones (including “supportive housing” programs).
Malloy said he plans to roll out executive orders in coming months to add to his “Second Chance” initiative. He said it builds on the progress of the past four years, during which time crime dropped to a 48-year low in Connecticut, with violent crime dropping 36 percent. Meanwhile, arrests dropped. So has the state’s prison population. After growing from 5,400 to 20,000 inmates from 1995 through 2008, that population has dropped back down to 16,300, a 16-year low.
Malloy credited his policies—decriminalization of marijuana, the death of the death penalty, gun control, gun buybacks, raising the age to 18 for charging offenders as adults, the gang-fighting “Project Longevity"campaign in major cities (which despite a remark he made Tuesday has not yet reported measurable results in New Haven)—for the drops.
Where Was The GOP?
Malloy called his proposals part of a “a new bipartisan national consensus” away from the lock-‘em, “tough on crime” policies of the late 1990s and early 2000s, toward a “smart on crime” focus on targeting violent criminals. “We lost our way” over those years,” he said. He made a point of citing states with Republican governors—Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama—enacting similar reforms.
“These are not Democrat or Republican ideas,” Malloy declared.
But they were delivered primarily to Democrats, not Republicans. At least on Tuesday.
Republicans were conspicuously absent from the crowd of Democratic mayors, state legislators and activists to whom he made the declaration at Yale Law School.
Asked about that afterwards, Michael Lawlor (pictured), the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning, said the administration invited the legislature’s Republican leaders to the event. They just didn’t show.
That was news to House Minority Leader Themis Klarides.
Reached after the event, she said she hadn’t known about it. She did some checking. She subsequently discovered that a Malloy aide had sent an email to her and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano at 12:06 p.m. Twenty-four minutes before the scheduled start of the New Haven speech.
The email didn’t invite the legislative leaders to the event, Klarides said. It informed them of the event and of the upcoming “Second Chance” proposals. “Somebody from their office would be reaching out to us to discuss these proposals prior to the budget address in a week and a half,” Klarides learned from the email. The message had “nothing in it saying, ‘We would like you to join us’ or ‘You’re welcome to join,’” Klarides said.
(Update: Malloy spokesman Mark Bergman said Republican leaders were invited to the speech days in advance (including to the speech’s original date a week earlier, which was postponed due to snow). He said the 12:06 email was a policy update for the Republican legislators. Klarides later clarified that her assistant did receive the original invitation but “disregarded it” because of the snow postponement. She called it “not atypical of them” to avoid mentioning the invite in the 12:06 email Tuesday. Fasano said he did get an invitation on Monday from Lawlor, but was too busy to attend the speech. )
Invitations aside, Klarides signaled that, while Republicans in other states might float similar proposals, Republicans in Connecticut might not be open to all of them. She needs to see the details before taking a side, she said. But she declared herself reluctant to embrace lowering criminal penaties for drug possession or making it easier to scrub ex-offenders’ records. “We’ve never been for that kind of thing,” she said.
She’d be open to increasing housing and training help for ex-offenders, but first she needs to see the cost, she said.
“To the best of my knowledge,” she said, “there was no conversation with my caucus in preparation of this agenda he put forward today. Just because Republican governors in other states may have supported issues similar to this does not make it bipartisan.”
Klarides voiced skepticism about Malloy’s claims that his policies caused crime to drop: “There are cyclical changes. If you happen to be the one in charge at the time, you take the credit for it.”
Fasano said he is skeptical about the need to expedite parole decisions or decriminalize drug offenses; he said drug offenders do usually receive alternatives to convictions for their first and second arrests. And pardons should be difficult to obtain, he said.
He did say he is “intrigued” by the proposal to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more discretion. He said he’s also “interested” in how to reduce the parole backlog beyond an expedited procedure.
What About Violent Offenders?
After Malloy’s speech, two Yale law students asked him a seminar-worthy question: If non-violent offenders deserve a “second chance,” don’t violent offenders deserve the same? Malloy’s speech called for locking up violent offenders for longer sentences.
“Some folks need additional help with maturation,” Malloy replied at first.
“Having said that,” he added, “we’re seeing even that audience of people have lower recidivism rates” under his policies.
A second student, Gilad Edelman, rephrased the question.
“The short answer to that is—they should” get second chances, Malloy said of violent offenders.
He then turned to strategy: He said it “makes sense” to see political support for reforms first for a (non-violent) group that is “more broadly embraced for that purpose.”
“If we can demonstrate the same kind of success over the next few years that we’ve had over the last four years” with increasing public safety while seeking less punitive approaches to non-violent crime, then we can pursue “reform[ing] the system more fully,” Malloy said.