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3 Strikes? A Flawed Concept


November 30, 2007

Kenneth Jackson is a two strikes guy we should be watching very closely.

He's one of the 435 violent criminals out there across Connecticut, one of those dangerous men with two strikes living among us.

Jackson's record is jammed with arrests for drugs, weapons, assault and manslaughter. With more than a dozen years behind bars, Jackson is a prime candidate for those three-strikes-and-you're-out proposals under consideration by lawmakers in Hartford.

Some of our get-tough-on-crime, build-more-prisons, spend-whatever-it-takes legislators are talking a lot about how three strikes and you're locked up forever will make us all safer.

"We cannot put a price on public safety," they tell us. "People have the right to protect their families against criminals." Who can argue when it's the Republicans saying this?

But as our leaders grope about in the wake of the horrific killings of the Petit family in Cheshire last summer and surviving father William Petit politely says that "political considerations should have no place in this debate" it's useful to listen carefully to Jackson, a felon.

The reality is not so tidy as more prisons and tougher laws.

"All they are doing is just talking about taking the people off the streets," Jackson said when I caught up with him after he spoke to the judiciary committee earlier this week.

Jackson knows about mistakes. He has a son who is in jail for murder. He knows that ex-con feeling of bridges burned, no job and no place to live.

"What about the people still getting out?" he asked me. It's a question I wish more of our leaders were asking.

The answer isn't more jails. It is paying attention to research that shows inmates who go into counseling and supervised re-entry programs more often than not don't end up back in prison.

Jackson is an ex-offender he calls himself a "streetologist" who now counsels inmates leaving the state's jails and prisons. He works for a Bridgeport program, Fresh Start, that provides counseling, job training and other assistance that ex-inmates need to rejoin the free world.

"We have to get into the hearts of these men," Jackson told state legislators the other day, when they could tear themselves away from talking about how bleeding-heart Superior Court judges need to be told what to do.

Just 18 months old, the program is showing some promising results, with just a handful of 100 former inmates getting re-arrested in the past year. A Yale professor is tracking the program, and organizers have high hopes of adding a residential component where participants work and live.

But wouldn't you know it, even as elected leaders tell us that money shouldn't be any obstacle, the Fresh Start program is short $225,000 and faces cutbacks.

It costs $30,000 or more annually to keep a criminal in prison in Connecticut. The Fresh Start program costs about $3,000 per person for the same period.

"If it truly works, let's lock up everybody who commits a crime forever. But it doesn't work," said A. Stephen Lanza, executive director of Family ReEntry, a nonprofit agency that runs Fresh Start.

Nationally, half of inmates who are released are back in jail within a few years. Lanza's program is trying to crack this cycle, so that felons don't commit more crimes, so that innocent people in cities and suburbs don't die.

"Our preliminary data shows something that is very clear," Lanza told me. The more engaged in society former inmates are taking classes and working at a job, paying rent and taking care of their families the less likely they are to commit more crimes.

"What we mostly offer is we connect with them very early on. When people come out they have no connection."

Luckily, the talk in Hartford is not all about building prisons and handing judges marching orders. Correction Commissioner Theresa C. Lantz has supported increased funding for programs aimed at helping inmates when they return to the streets. State Sen. Andrew McDonald, co-chairman of the judiciary committee, told me that there is interest in funding prisoner re-entry programs.

Because just as we must listen to the build-more-prisons and three-strikes-you're-out crowd, we've got to open our minds to Jackson's message.

"You've got to be thinking of ways to stop people from getting a third strike," he told me. He's right.

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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