Meeting signals shift in Elm City prison debate

After Mayor John DeStefano Jr. met with the state corrections chief last Tuesday, reform of the state’s criminal justice system seemed to have shifted from a personal to a policy focus.

Following a heated exchange of words and letters between the mayor and Gov. M. Jodi Rell over the past month, the meeting offered a chance for both sides to work together to solve what both camps admit is a crisis: how to cope with crowded prisons and what to do with prisoners upon their release. The participants emerged from the meeting saying that it had been productive and concluded with what the mayor called a “Road Map,” the New Haven Independent reported after the gathering at City Hall terminated.

But the meeting with the Department of Corrections Commissioner Theresa Lantz also avoided a direct confrontation between the governor and the mayor, one-time political opponents in the race for governor in 2006.

Ward 28 Alderman Mordechai Sandman, whose ward includes the Whalley Avenue jail where released inmates are regularly dropped off — sometimes a couple dozen each week — said he had heard from people familiar with the meeting that it had built mutual respect on both sides and would provide a chance to tackle the challenges, although some could be more costly than others.

He said it is his understanding that further discussion would eventually focus on the drop-off point for released prisoners and on making sure corrections or social service officials are aware when former inmates have nowhere to go, so they can be directed to social services.

Still, this particular meeting did not address the drop-off concerns, the mayor told the New Haven Independent.

“I am hoping,” Sandman said, “that we are able to move the drop-off point to a more transit-oriented center,” suggesting Union Station as an example of somewhere with the existing infrastructure to provide transportation to anywhere in the greater New Haven area.

“I don’t want the problems dumped on someone else’s [ward],” he said. “I want these issues dealt with, and Whalley Avenue has infrequent buses and no taxis.”

While changing the location where prisoners are released should not necessitate any serious new expenditures, Sandman noted that a renewed focus on social services — increasing the bureaucracy necessary to interview, coordinate and catalogue the needs of individual prisoners — would require a willingness from the state to spend more money.

“But it’s a much greater problem if you have recently released people wandering the streets, not just here in New Haven, but also in Hartford and Bridgeport,” he added.

The back-and-forth

The heated exchange between the governor and the mayor began in late February, when three separate shootings in New Haven involving youth with criminal records spurred the mayor to lash out at what he called inadequate state support for prisoners returning to the city.

New Haven should not “have to put up with this nonsense,” DeStefano said at the press conference, and he called on the state to “adopt a real prison re-entry program.”

The governor’s response — an angry two-page letter that derided the mayor for his “frankly shocking unfamiliarity with the true nature of the problem” — was layered with irony, as it rejected the notion that the state “dumps” prisoners in New Haven rather than returning them to where they ask or their home city.

“Indeed, if I were in an ironic frame of mind, perhaps I might complain about the City of New Haven ‘dumping’ its problems with drugs, violence, theft and other crimes on the State of Connecticut,” she wrote, in a parenthetical remark, after noting that 12 percent of state inmates report New Haven as their residence.

She listed additional proposals for funding she made in her mid-term budget, including $566,000 for the Connecticut Offender Re-entry Program, but she also expressed displeasure that, in requesting money from the state, the mayor failed to acknowledge the state aid provided to the city in the aftermath of the “appalling corruption uncovered by a federal investigation.”

Those kinds of charges against the mayor were picked up by the former mayor and frequent DeStefano critic John Daniels in a March 5 letter to the governor expressing his support for her and asking her to help save New Haven from DeStefano, saying he could not watch anymore from the sidelines.

“One way you can help is to tell the Mayor that before he throws stones at State government he should clean up the corruptions in the New Haven Police Department the worst in the history of this State,” Daniels wrote. “Tell him to stop the abuse of overtime in the police department which is costing taxpayers [millions] of dollars. Tell him to educate our children in our new schools rather than using them for patronage purposes.”

But the letter did not directly address the issues related to “dumping” or prison-re-entry programs.

In response to Rell’s letter, DeStefano immediately requested a meeting with the governor to discuss prison re-entry and the aftermath of the December fire in downtown New Haven. His letter stated its purpose was “to discuss these matters and second to advise you that your letter of February 29, 2008 contains several material misstatements.”

Spending ‘rainy-day’ funds

But now, as the discussion moves forward, obstacles remain between Democrats and Republicans in the state.

The governor has stated that she is not willing to exceed the state’s spending cap in order to fund more re-entry and diversionary programs. Thus, even if Democrats in Hartford could keep together a veto-proof majority — increasingly unlikely after losing a special election and now having only 23 of 36 senators — any financial expenditure would still constitutionally require the governor’s signature.

Rep. Claudia Powers, a Republican who serves of the Judiciary committee, said the governor’s position on remaining within the spending limit is clear and that the economic turmoil nationally gave further incentive to avoid spending “rainy-day” funds for anything other than a emergency.

But Democratic Rep. Mike Lawlor, who heads the state Judiciary committee, said that one way or another, the state will be forced to pay — either for new prisoners to accommodate the huge inmate population, or on social services for re-entry and diversion, which he said are not only cheaper but also more effective.

But building new prisons is unpopular with both Republicans and Democrats. There is also substantial bipartisan agreement that violent offenders should be kept locked up for as long as possible.

Lawlor argued that without re-entry and diversionary programs, which should help reduce the prison population by diverting non-violent offenders who make up most of the state’s inmates, violent offenders will end up being released.

Like much of the country, prison populations have skyrocketed even as violent crime has fallen over the last 20 years. While Connecticut’s inmate numbers has risen from 5,422 in 1985 to 19,875 at the end of January of this year, according to numbers compiled by the state, even as violent crime has dropped from 402 incidents per 100,000 residents to 280.8 per 100,000 residents, according to Disastercenter.com, which provides national crime statistics.

Warren Kimbro, a former convict who has run Project MORE — an organization dedicated to assisting ex-offenders contribute positively when they return to the community — since 1983 said all prisoners, not only those on probation or parole, need to be helped to reintegrate if the state wants to reduce recidivism. But this can be accomplished best in private discussion, not in headlines, he added.

“There is an African proverb: When elephants fight, only the grass gets trampled,” Kimbro remarked. “I don’t think there needs a verbal public battle over this … There is enough evidence to show that there are some people who are let out without services … and if both sides sit down together and work through these issues, we can correct them. You can’t blame the governor, and you can’t blame the mayor.”

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