The persistent social issues that haunt Connecticut center on disparity: urban poverty encircled by wealth, the academic achievement gap between poor and more affluent students, and our criminal justice system, in which people of color are 70 percent of all prison inmates while being only 20 percent of the state's population.
Depending on which report you read, our state's disparities are the worst in the nation. All of these issues are related. Now, with the release of a state Office of Policy and Management report that says 80 percent of our formerly incarcerated citizens are rearrested within five years, the connection between recidivism and poverty is becoming clear.
There is a growing bipartisan movement to closely examine the collateral consequences of our nation's extraordinary rate of incarceration. Why do we continue to incarcerate as crime plunges to the lowest levels in 40 years? Conservative thought leaders organized Right On Crime (rightoncrime.com) to advocate for a more community focused and cost-effective approach to criminal justice and re-entry.
Academics studying income disparity directly correlate mass incarceration to poverty. Conservatives and liberals agree that we need to mitigate the collateral consequences of our nation's increasing reliance on incarceration.
In Connecticut, there have been modest decreases this year in the number of incarcerated citizens. Reports from the Department of Correction for the past 10 years, however, reveal that, in the aggregate, 65,000 to 70,000 citizens either enter or leave Connecticut prisons annually. The systemic churn of this population is consistent regardless of crime rates. Entrances and discharges remain roughly equal and our incarcerated population always hovers around 17,000 to 19,000.
Entering or leaving prison is a traumatic event for everyone involved, principally the families either left behind or those accepting the formerly incarcerated upon return. Not surprisingly, the majority of the families and communities affected are from our state's poorest cities: Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury and New Britain. These cities have relatively small populations and the percentages touched by incarceration are large. More than half of the prisoners are parents. All belong to families and communities.
As our rates of incarceration have skyrocketed, we have increased sentence length and dramatically slashed prison programs that maintained community connections and prepared prisoners to re-enter society as productive, tax-paying citizens. Today, the formerly incarcerated are ill-prepared to re-enter communities and, as a result, violation of probation or parole is the No. 1 offense for which citizens are incarcerated.
Effective re-entry programs are now more important than ever given our state's job market. Connecticut is last nationally in new job generation during the past two decades. As jobs disappeared and crime rates plummeted, our prison population increased almost 300 percent. Our poorest families and lowest-achieving students live in the same communities most affected by mass incarceration.
A prison record makes finding work in a weak job market a pipe dream. Unable to get a secure foothold in their communities, these individuals end up returning to prison, leaving children and families trapped in a hopeless cycle of generational poverty.
Pew reports that Connecticut is one of five states that spend more on prisons than higher education. A recent Vera Institute study revealed that the cost of operating Connecticut's prison system was understated by 34 percent and is well over $900 million annually.
A poor jobs market needs a well-funded education system and jobs programs substantially more than it needs an overly developed corrections system. Explosive growth in our prison population has disproportionately burdened our poorest communities and diverted funds from programs that address disparities in educational and economic opportunity. As we refine budget numbers, we need to reassess how we spend criminal justice dollars.
Pew reports that in the past 10 years, 19 states have cut their rates of imprisonment. Each of these states experienced a decline in their crime rates. Re-entry planning should begin in prison and transfer seamlessly into the community. The formerly incarcerated should be prepared to get a job and contribute to their family and community. Such efforts will benefit our neediest and establish Connecticut as a national leader in addressing crime from a holistic perspective.
We urgently need to fund comprehensive re-entry programs that honestly seek to reduce recidivism. Assessment, educational and jobs training, and intense supportive supervision upon release will reduce recidivism and make our state safer. The failure to act is a story with an obvious and tragic ending.
Brian O'Shaughnessy of New Haven is on the board of the Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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