Connecticut legislators met on Nov. 27 to consider 15 proposals on reforming the criminal justice system. Although these bills claim to reform the justice system, most of them propose a more extreme form of the existing system, which over-funds imprisonment and de-funds education, health care, welfare, basic human services and job training.
The most prominent of these bills, proposed by Rep. Michael P. Lawlor of East Haven and Sen. Andrew J. McDonald of Stamford, proposes to spend $260 million on two new prisons, which would cost $400 million in bonding over 20 years.
The same bill proposes to spend $1.77 million on counseling. This is a ratio of 100-1 of spending on prisons, as opposed to people. This is not a reform bill. It is a more extreme version of policies that have already destroyed tens of thousands of lives and families and decimated many communities.
To see the devastating effects of the already existing harsh prison laws in Connecticut, we need look no farther than our state capital.
Susan Storey, chief public defender of Connecticut, testified on Nov. 27 to the Judiciary Committee that "statistics show that one in six of Hartford's children has a parent or parents in prison and research shows that this single fact puts children at increased risk of entering the criminal justice system."
Each imprisoned generation, under our system of priorities, begets an even larger imprisoned generation. At some point in the past, one out of 10 children in Hartford had a parent in prison. Harsher sentencing laws were passed.
Now one out of six children in Hartford has a parent in prison. Based on the trends we see, harsher policies — more prisons, "three strikes" laws, mandatory minimum sentences and parole bans — will lead to a situation where one out of two children in Hartford will have a parent in prison. And soon the statisticians will start to count the number of children in Hartford with both parents in prison. Will this lead to greater safety? No.
Many of the proposals being considered by the Judiciary Committee include longer sentences, mandatory minimum sentences and reclassification of nonviolent crimes as being violent. But the problem is not that there aren't enough people in prison. It is that there are far too many people in prison.
The United States, the land of the free, already has 2.5 million people in prison, compared with China's 1.5 million. And the majority of the U.S. prisoners are nonviolent, imprisoned for long periods despite not posing a threat to others, or imprisoned for crimes that only are considered violent here. The result of all of this, of course, is less safety, not more safety.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell's ban on parole is another example of a harsh policy that leads to more, not less harm. In a study released last year from the Central Connecticut State University Criminology Department, it was determined that prisoners who re-enter society on parole are about half as likely to return to prison than those who complete their terms.
Common sense would lead to the expansion of parole services, not a ban on parole. But politicians are more interested in getting votes by sounding tough than actually solving problems.
We don't need more prisons, longer sentences, three strikes laws and bans on parole. We need funding for schools, jobs and rehabilitation for those re-entering society. And by funding, I mean real funding, not funding at the current rates, which has led to nonfunctional schools, declining wages and failed rehabilitation. Safety in our communities can only result from a focus on real services to communities, something we have not seen in many years.
Not a single proposal being considered by the Judiciary Committee reflects any imaginative thinking by lawmakers that is likely to actually increase our safety. Throw-away-the-key laws and a 100-1 ratio of funding on prisons vs. people will not lead to safety, but to more parents in prison, more community destruction, more crime and more incarceration.
Let's build schools, not prisons.
Khalil Iskarous of New Haven is a member of the Committee Against the Ban on Parole and Unidad Latina en Accion.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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