Changes Underway in the Prison System
by Stan Simpson
If you were a cynic -- like, uh, someone you might know -- maybe
you'd also find it odd that a recent government report highlighted
Connecticut's prison population as having “the largest decrease
in the country” last year.
After all, this is a state embarrassed by the insidious distinction
that it locks up African American and Latino males at rates well
above the national average, while whites are incarcerated at rates
well below. It is only in the preliminary stages of addressing its
overcrowding and racial disparity issues.
So, a government-sanctioned report heralding our judicial and correction
systems would be like reading a study trumpeting a decrease in corruption
in the state.
Or, as Hartford City Attorney John Rose Jr., a member of the commission
studying the prison disparity issue, said of the news account on
But the state's 4.2 percent drop in prisoners, from 20,720 inmates
in 2002 to 19,846 in 2003, puts it in the national spotlight. Most
states are realizing that there's a better way to invest hundreds
of millions of dollars in public money than to lock up mostly nonviolent,
illiterate, drug-addicted or mentally ill human beings.
Those on the front lines of Connecticut's correction and judicial
systems insist the inmate reduction numbers should be viewed as encouraging
and reflective of a more enlightened effort by lawmakers and their
First, the state is focusing on diverting from prison those who
violate parole or probation with nonviolent acts such as coming up
dirty on a drug test, failing to report to a probation officer or
not finding a job.
Next, is the promise of more comprehensive prison-diversion programs
-- drug treatment, job training and education -- and equity in sentencing
for urban and suburban youths.
“In my view there's unparalleled, unprecedented collaboration
going on in government to work together on this,” says William
Carbone, executive director for Court Support Services in Hartford. “I'm
very encouraged. I see the legislature making a commitment. I see
the governor making a commitment.”
State Rep. William Dyson of New Haven organized a January 2003
forum at Central Connecticut State University on how to reduce the
barriers to ex-offenders finding employment. It attracted an array
of stakeholders in the correction and justice systems, including
victims and ex-offenders. Many say the event was critical in identifying
how the overcrowding problem was linked, in part, to ex-offenders
returning to prison for probation violations.
From the early 1980s to now, the percentage of inmates nationally
jailed for violating probation increased from 17 percent to 34 percent.
Until recently, Connecticut dramatically reduced its number of
probation officers, which increased the caseloads of the officers
remaining. Soon, an environment was created in which it was more
expedient to send probation violators back to the pen than to counsel
Programs are now underway in which inmates who are 90 days from
freedom are more actively identified and evaluated for programs that
can make them more productive citizens.
The biggest crime committed in Connecticut is the $552 million
allocated for the prison system; 50 percent of the approximately
18,000 inmates come from New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport.
In the Hill section of New Haven alone, the state spent $20 million
in one year to incarcerate folks from that neighborhood.
“People are raising their awareness that the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key
approach to things is not the most efficient way of doing things,” says
Maureen Knight Price, who heads Community Partners in Action, which
runs programs for ex-offenders.
That awareness apparently is not just a grass-roots thing, but
reaching the decision-makers who can elect to lock up or suggest
Over the past decade, the state has evolved from one that dumped
more than a billion dollars into new prison construction, to one
that housed so many prisoners it had to farm them out of state. Former
Gov. John G. Rowland underwent a conversion from being a leading “Get
Tough on Crime” advocate to one who began to understand what
was really choking the system and squandering tax dollars.
“It's more of an attitudinal change that has started to kick
in,” says state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, a prison
reform advocate. “And that change in mentality is starting
to pay some dividends.”
Hence, the additional interest.
Stan Simpson's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can
be heard today on WTIC NewsTalk 1080 from 5:30 to 10 a.m.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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