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The Wrong Way To Face Crime

Column By STAN SIMPSON

February 16, 2008

Two questions rarely get asked of Gov. M. Jodi Rell as she promotes her get-tough-on-crime agenda.

In the barbershops, however, and establishments where folks of color congregate, you hear them often.

Doesn't she realize the racial implications of what has been proposed in response to the horrible home invasion slayings in Cheshire? And why wasn't there similar reaction to violent crimes crippling urban communities?

Hartford, alone, had more than 30 homicides last year.

The media attention, however, focused on affluent Cheshire, where two white ex-offenders broke into a suburban home, savaged a well-to-do and well-connected white family, then set the place afire. The mostly white lawmakers then set out to make sure this never happens again. The results ultimately will be new public policy that will have a disproportionate effect on African Americans and Latinos, who make up 75 percent of the state's prison population.

The commingling of class, race and criminal justice has always resulted in uneven justice. And even when the system attempts to correct itself, the outcome can be disparately punitive.

In an interview this week, Rell told me that Cheshire simply presented a unique circumstance.

"When someone breaks into somebody's home, murders someone's family, sets the place on fire, you're going to have that kind of outrage," she said. "What you do see here that is different is that you're attacking a family and you don't read about those too many times, whether it's an African American, or Latino, or white family. But when it happens we're all equally outraged."

Many of Rell's crime reform plans are part of the fallout of Cheshire and a burgeoning prison overcrowding problem that has reached a record 20,000 inmates. Her proposal to hire 125 new correction officers and expand a prison, however, will only compound, not curb, the overcrowding.

Connecticut learned 10 years ago that it can't spend its way out of overcrowding. In recent years, the state registered three consecutive years of decreases in its prison population and was actually being recognized nationally for a progressive-thinking approach that valued prison-diversion programs over expansion. These latest efforts reflect that the state is in full regression.

"If we're serious about being tough on crime, then we have to do it a little differently," said State Rep. Kelvin Roldan D- Hartford. "You have to look at probation and parole, which is really the real issue of what caused Cheshire to happen. Let's talk about real supervision and real support."

If Connecticut is going to invest more than the $600 million-plus it pumps into corrections now, it should put more into literacy programs, job training, drug and alcohol counseling and housing assistance.

"Everyone agrees that what happens in Cheshire was a tragedy," said Fernando Betancourt, executive director of the state's Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission. "And when that happens people tend to react. . .. But we have to be very cautious about what we approve. The worst kind of policies are approved when [coming after] a reaction."

Tony Nelson of New Haven owns a consulting business that helps connect ex-offenders to jobs in the community. He's acutely aware of the racial disparity in the prisons and believes, based on his observations, that society is more apt to give white ex-offenders a second chance.

Crime in the city is like an infection. When it spreads to the suburbs its gets treated like an epidemic.

And not everyone can tolerate the vaccine.

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.
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