Just eight months ago Connecticut was singled out in a private report for its enlightened approach to managing its prison population.
The state was focusing more on prison diversion and drug treatment for nonviolent offenders than on incarceration. Then, along came Cheshire.
The attention generated in July from the horrifying slayings during a break-in at the Petit family's house spurred a governor's task force on sentencing and parole, a parole moratorium for violent offenders and calls for more prisons.
Meanwhile, the state's inmate population inches toward a record high of 20,000. And there's talk, reminiscent of more than a decade ago, of prison expansion.
If Connecticut goes there again, it will mean that it hasn't learned much.
The last time the state went on a massive prison expansion escapade, it spent $1 billion to build 12 new prisons - the last in 1996. The overcrowding problem got worse, not better. Inmates were sent to out-of-state facilities.
Prison expansion was costly and largely ineffective. The state Department of Correction's budget ballooned, from $92.4 million in 1985, with 5,379 inmates, to $605 million this year. In recent years, Connecticut got smarter and embraced prison-diversion alternatives for nonviolent offenders.
The Pew Charitable Trusts released a private report in February projecting that the country's inmate population will rise by 200,000 in the next five years - three times the rate of the nation's population growth - and cost $27 billion.
Connecticut and Delaware were the only states in which no growth in the prison population was projected. That changed for CT, but research has traditionally shown that it is better to invest in community re-entry programs than in bricks and mortar. The large majority of inmates get released.
"When an event as tragic as the Petits' occurs, obviously, the first response is to identify why it happened and to do everything to prevent it from happening again," said Ryan King, policy analyst for The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based prison reform advocacy organization. "Unfortunately, that response has traditionally been longer sentences of some kind, restricting parole release, those sorts of things. And the fact of the matter is there's been very little empirical evidence that any of them have had the advertised effect."
While Connecticut takes this pause to reflect on its current correction system, here's a suggestion for our legislators: Don't overreact, folks. Invest in job training, drug counseling and housing assistance programs. Reserve prison beds for the true incorrigibles.
"The conversation that can't be lost in this dynamic is that at the end of the day, creating and maintaining comprehensive re-entry services for individuals is a better way of increasing safer communities," said Maureen Price-Boreland, a member of the governor's task force and executive director of Community Partners in Action, which runs re-entry programs for former offenders.
State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee, said that lawmakers will be engaged in weighing philosophical arguments of expanding prisons vs. the practical ones.
"If we're going to make policy changes which result in more people incarcerated, then we have to provide the resources to manage those people," Lawlor said.
One way to quiet the philosophers talking about expansion is to insist that all future pens be built in their backyards.
Then, we can get practical.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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