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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 prisoners: “Whoop-de-do.”

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 judicial brethren.

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 with them.

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 alternative programs.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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