A Look at the Second Chance Society Initiative in Connecticut

January 5, 2017

The United States has the world’s highest rate of imprisonment among its citizens. [1] Most Americans that are sentenced to a detention facility, prison, or jail will eventually be released. When our society began to accept the view that those who break the law are wayward individuals in need of rehabilitation rather than wicked individuals, it became more of a priority in “correctional facilities” to provide services like vocational training, education, and treatment of substance abuse. Other prison reforms have sought to provide recreational outlets, worship opportunities, counseling, more family visits, and the clustering of inmates by the nature and severity of their crimes.

Despite these efforts, the United States has a high rate of recidivism. According to the National Institute of Justice two-thirds of convicts are rearrested within 3 years of release, and a whopping three-quarters are arrested within 5 years. [2] Recidivism is highest among those convicted of property crimes, but is also high for those convicted of other kinds of offenses. Whatever correctional facilities are doing now does not appear to be enough to provide the tools that inmates must acquire to successfully rejoin society.

Studies indicate that correctional facilities that do best at assessing a prisoner’s criminal history, work record, family relationships, and educational attainment, and then assigning him to programs and training that address those factors have a better chance at stopping the cycle of recidivism [3], and there is proposed legislation in Congress relating to federal prisons which would encourage inmates to complete certain programs and benchmarks, and thereby become eligible for earlier release. [4] Prisoners who are assessed to be lower risks to re-offend could potentially serve sentences in re-entry centers, home detention, or community supervision. Having those convicted of crimes separated as much as possible from the “system,” where anti-social behaviors may be modeled or reinforced among inmate populations can set detainees on a path with a better chance of success.

Depending on the situation, someone in a community-based system rather than a traditional jail may be able to work, get educational or vocational training, mental health or addiction assistance, and have contact with family. All of these factors may lead to a better chance to stay “straight.” And there are community-based strategies which have developed a variety of approaches to combat relapse. [5]

The federal U.S. Court system noted that in 2013 it cost nearly $29,000 per year to “warehouse” each prisoner in correctional facilities, but about $27,000 to place offenders in residential re-entry programs, and only about $3,300 to be supervised by a parole officer.  [6] Alternative sentences that can range from deferred action and suspending the sentence, to community service, restitution, or other innovations can cost less and potentially be more effective.

In Connecticut, Governor Dannel Molloy, in office since 2011, has made his vision of a “Second-Chance Society” a major priority of his office. Although widely unpopular around the state due to the weakness of its economy and budget shortfalls, he has been remarkably successful so far with criminal justice reform. Governor Malloy’s first salvo in reform was to introduce legislation that abolished the death penalty in the state in 2012. Although the state had not performed an execution since 1960, the law had remained on the books.

The anti-death penalty law was further strengthened in 2015, when the state’s Supreme Court abolished capital punishment retroactively, preventing the execution of those who had been sent to Death Row prior to the change in law. The inmates sentenced to death prior to 2012 were instead re-sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. [7]

Malloy, who was raised in a traditional Irish-American Catholic household, and was educated at the Jesuit Boston College’s law school, nevertheless initially supported the death penalty in his days as a prosecutor in Brooklyn. But over time he saw the possibility of human error in the justice system, and began to have doubts. Speaking before the media prior to the enactment of the anti-death penalty bill Malloy said, “I don’t want to overemphasize my Catholicism here. But I know my religion. I know religions in general. In the New Testament, the one place where Jesus talks about the death penalty, he says, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ When I’ve reflected on the death penalty, the reality is I frequently ponder that passage.” [8]

The “Second Chance Society” initiative is intended as a multi-faceted approach to reduce criminality, reduce the warehousing and institutionalization of prisoners, and to reintegrate ex-offenders back into the community after serving sentences. Malloy and Commissioner of Corrections Scott Semple may have been seen as an odd couple to begin the transformation of the state penal system. Malloy initially had no interest in nominating an opposition Republican to the post. Semple rose through the department ranks, beginning as a correctional officer, and becoming an administrator in the Governor John Rowland era of the 1990s when the national focus was “lock ‘em up.”

Rowland himself later went to jail for political corruption, and one of Malloy’s sons was sentenced to probation for an attempted robbery of a drug dealer during the campaign. The experiences of Malloy and Semple may have convinced them to take a closer look at how the system worked, and how it helped (or didn’t help) those who were incarcerated. (In the case of Malloy’s son, he overcame drug addiction and later graduated from college.) The men have made a habit of continually touring state prisons, as well as visiting ones in Europe, and trying to incorporate as many success stories and best practices as possible. The governor and commissioner were particularly impressed with German correctional institutions that operate more as dormitories and with efforts at reform with a particular focus on at-risk youthful offenders. [9]
In the wake of the shooting massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Malloy’s majority Democrats in the General Assembly passed extensive laws against the accessibility of firearms, requiring universal background checks, banning ammunition magazines greater than 10, and creating the first registry in the nation of those convicted on weapons charges. Additional weapons were added to the state’s assault ban as well. [10]
Malloy also has proposed changing the law regarding juvenile justice. Under Malloy’s plan the age of adult responsibility for criminality would be raised to 21 from 18. That would be similar to how other western nations define culpability. Although no state has passed such a law yet, the assemblies in Illinois and Vermont have also been considering the idea. The effort is based on the idea in the scientific literature that “emerging adults” in their late teens and early twenties are still learning an ethical code, and tend to be much more attracted to crime than older people. In Connecticut, for instance, young adults aged 18 to 20 comprise only 4% of the state’s population, but are responsible for 10% of the arrests. Nationwide, those 18 to 25 year olds are a tenth of the American population, but arrested at a rate three times their numbers. [11] (Of course, in many areas of the U.S., prosecutors seek to try some youths as adults when they are less than 18, especially when a sensational crime is publicized.)

Connecticut already has a unique approach to youths who get involved with crime – Juvenile Review Boards (JRBs). Many local youth service bureaus and human service organizations operate boards that are intended to divert kids away from the path of imprisonment or detention centers in which anti-social behavior and exposure to more hardened inmates can be imprinted on impressionable youth, leading to further criminality and a pattern of revolving in and out of prison. The JRBs are staffed with volunteers who want youth to learn from their mistakes, get connected with services they may be lacking, and instill the idea that their actions affect the community they live in. Parents, social workers, faith leaders, police officers, youth workers, and probation officers, and so on work on objectives that will set young offenders back on course.  The JRBs are intended as an intervention for youth to avoid being sent before a magistrate. [12] Scott Semple has been planning to retrofit or create a prison that would house only inmates from the ages of 18 to 25 in order to reach them with training, counseling, and services, while their risk of re=offending can be mitigated.

With adults that have committed non-violent offenses, the Second Chance Society reclassified simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, and eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent possession. [13] The New York Times noted that the initiative plans for more police accountability through the purchase and wearing of body cameras by all officers, recruitment of more police who are from racial minorities, and independent review of cases where an agency uses force that results in a civilian death.

Bail reform is another area ripe for reform because of its unequal application in Connecticut, as in many other jurisdictions. Although Malloy was not able to have reforms passed in the General Assembly 2016 session, he plans to have his allies introduce it in 2017. The Governor’s Office fact sheet on Second Chance notes that indigent citizens who have been arrested may not be able to muster the relatively small sums to pay bail prior to a trial. Stuck languishing in prison, poor defendants miss opportunities to stay connected to the workforce, family, and other responsibilities. If a judge assesses fines for their offenses, the guilty may find it increasingly difficult to get out from under the burden of criminal justice debt, which in turn can lead to additional criminality.

Connecticut’s prison system is different from other states in that it has no local or county jails. So, those who are detained prior to a trial, or too poor to make bail, must be housed in state prisons. More than a quarter of those in prison in Nutmeg state facilities were merely awaiting a trial or sentencing.

At a conference last year regarding bail reform in Washington DC, Malloy’s counterpart in Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, noted that prison spending in his state (which has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S.) was beginning to bankrupt his state’s coffers. [14] Malloy’s proposal would prohibit judges from setting bail on anyone arrested for a misdemeanor, except if a magistrate believes the accused poses an immediate or imminent threat, or has been charged with failure to appear previously. The goal is to prevent low-risk defendants from incarceration, and thus feed a possible cycle of recidivism. Malloy’s proposal comes at a time when the Indiana Supreme Court issued an order last fall limiting the use of cash and surety bonds by judges for most defendants in favor of similar risk-assessments. [15]
Malloy and Commissioner Semple have been working to add workforce skills and job hunting preparation for detainees who are nearing the end of their terms. Prior to Malloy’s election as governor, Connecticut became one of the states to remove the area of employment applications that requires one to describe their criminal history. “Ban the box” laws limit prospective employers as to how much they may inquire about a candidate’s criminal history before a conditional offer is made, or at least until an interview. [16] The reason for such initiatives is that organizations are often wary of hiring former convicts, which can contribute to recidivism if convicts can’t get a second chance with honest work. An inmate at New Haven Correctional Center told Malloy a familiar story. He had been an experienced truck driver in the outside world, but his criminal record made trucking companies look to less knowledgeable drivers with clean pasts. [17]
Malloy and Semple have tried to establish a view among residents, and among the employees and correctional officers of the state prison system, to look at the prisons as reintegration centers rather than punitive institutions.  As one female inmate who met Malloy put it before being given a job at the reintegration center to help other prisoners learn computers, “…just, you know, lock up. Don’t do anything. That was it. That was how I was going to spend my time, I thought…” [18]

They have opened a reintegration center at the men’s state penitentiary in Somers, one for prisoners who were veterans of the armed services, and one is planned for those who were convicted of drunk driving offenses. At the York Correctional Institution in East Lyme, the women’s facility has a full slate of programs, counseling, and group discussions.

In addition to other issues incarcerated women face, 62% have children under the age of 18, and half were the sole guardian of these children. [19] Children of incarcerated parents face social problems of poverty and lack of role models, which can potentially lead them to crime as well.

Although national trends in crime have been dropping for some time, Connecticut’s rate has been dropping precipitously. In 2015 the violent crime rate dropped 8.5%, despite a 3.5% uptick nationally. Further, violent crime in the Constitution State has dropped 22% since 2010, and is at its lowest point in a half century. [20] Having the lowest inmate population statewide since the mid-90s, when the prison construction boom was a national priority, gives the state an opportunity to look at further innovation.

Connecticut’s prison population is actually falling short of state budget projections [20], and the state has actually discussed the closure of prisons if it is successful in limiting the number of youth offenders becoming criminal adults, and successfully provides a second chance through its reintegration centers. An American state that could close prisons and redefine how to reintegrate offenders into society? What a concept!

Kirk G. Morrison, MLIS

(Mr. Morrison is a librarian in Connecticut and interested in issues of social justice, rebuilding social capital, and enhancing civic engagement in communities nationwide.)