Bail and sentencing reforms are on the docket for the coming legislative session, state Sen. Gary Winfield said at a meeting of the criminal justice advocacy organization People Against Injustice Monday night.
Winfield, who met with six PAI members in the basement of the New Haven Free Public Library, reviewed the criminal justice reform legislation passed during the General Assembly’s most recent session, as well as the legislation that may come before the legislature once the new session begins in February. The General Assembly passed two major works of criminal justice reform in 2015 — the “Second Chance Society” measure, which eliminated mandatory penalties for selling drugs in a school zone, and the Excessive Use of Force Act, which established a state-funded program to buy body cameras for municipal police departments.
In the upcoming legislative session, which will run from February until June, Winfield said the legislature is likely to focus on the bail and sentencing reforms Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed last week. His proposals seek to ensure accused criminals are not forced to stay in jail because they cannot afford bail and to raise the age of the juvenile justice system’s jurisdiction to 20.
Winfield said the Second Chance act is intended to protect children from the effects of drug dealing.
“Generally, I’m against enhanced penalties,” he said. “But if you’re selling to a kid, then I’m not going to go ballistic about enhanced penalties.”
The Second Chance act only affects buyers, Winfield said. The bill leaves penalties for sellers unchanged. On the first and second instances of buying drugs in protected zones — which encompass a large majority of New Haven — the law allows buyers to begin treatment programs instead of face felony charges, he said. The buyer only faces felony charges on the third instance.
Winfield added that he would like to see the 1,500-foot protected zone around schools eliminated, leaving enhanced penalties only for selling to children, as established under current law. He said legislators in favor of the change have often been called “soft on crime,” making advocacy difficult.
“It’s not about being soft on crime,” he said. “It’s about being smart. You don’t get everybody and their brother in jail, and you get to do what you want to do.”
Jane Mills, a member of PAI, suggested that the organization hold forums and meetings with legislators in other parts of the state to convince them of the need for criminal justice reform.
Bail reform is likely to be a focus for PAI’s advocacy efforts in coming months, Mills said. Julia Berger, another PAI member, said the current bail system is “unfair and unequal.”
Winfield said the legislation the General Assembly will consider in the upcoming legislative session is still largely unwritten and so is a “blank canvas” for activists to influence.
Mills was optimistic about the chances of passing substantive reform in the coming months.
“This is actually one of those years — a rare year in justice reform — when you can have some hope of getting one or two things passed,” she said.
Activists also raised concerns about visitation policies in Connecticut prisons. They said visitation policies at the New Haven Correctional Center on Whalley Avenue stipulate that an inmate must be listed on a child’s birth certificate for the child to be able to visit the inmate. Linda Faye Wilson, a PAI member who attended the meeting, said those policies are unrealistic, given the often complicated reality of parenthood in New Haven.
Winfield suggested the activists raise the issue with the warden at that prison and with Scott Semple, who was appointed commissioner of the state’s Department of Correction in January. Winfield praised Semple’s performance as commissioner, calling him “unbelievable” and praising his push to reform prisons.
The meeting ended with Winfield warning attendees of the pros and cons of community policing strategies in New Haven.
“Anytime we’re talking about community policing, I’d be very careful about what people mean,” he said. “Community policing, broken windows policing, whatever theory of policing you want, generally means an expansion of policing in minority communities.”
Community policing may be a good strategy for cutting crime in communities with large minority populations, he said, but activists should be careful what they wish for — there is no uniform understanding of what community policing means across the legislature.
Winfield was elected to the state Senate in 2014 in the special election to succeed Mayor Toni Harp in representing the 10th district in the Connecticut Senate.