With yet another state prison closing, the era of mass incarceration may be coming to an end in Connecticut.
The Enfield Correctional Institution, which currently holds approximately 700 offenders, will be closed in early 2018, Gov. Dannel Malloy announced last Tuesday. This decision marks the fifth prison closure since 2015 and the seventh since the governor took office in 2011. The governor attributed the closing to the continuing decline in the state’s crime rate and prison population.
“As crime in Connecticut has dropped to its lowest level in two generations, and the prison population has reached its lowest level in 23 years, we’ve been able to create efficiencies by closing outdated facilities and reallocating these resources toward efforts that will further enhance public safety initiatives and keep our neighborhoods even safer,” Malloy said in the announcement.
According to the FBI’s 2016 crime report, Connecticut has seen the largest reduction in its violent crime rate of any state over the last four years, and overall reported crime was the lowest since 1967.
Mike Lawlor, Connecticut’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy, noted that the drop in criminal activity among young people has been especially drastic. This trend, he said, will help to ensure the inmate population continues to decline in the future.
“We know from a lot of data that if you can get to age 25 and have never been incarcerated, then the odds that you will be incarcerated in the future is almost zero,” Lawlor said.
Crime rate, however, does not tell the whole story. The prison population in Connecticut peaked in 2008, at a time when the crime rate had already been declining for almost two decades. The prison population has since dropped 25 percent.
John Santa, chairman of the Malta Justice Initiative, a nonprofit aiming to reduce incarceration, credited the criminal justice reforms the Malloy administration enacted for the dwindling prison population, saying that the general public and officials have become more “enlightened” on this issue.
“People have started to realize that we are not going to incarcerate our way to a safe society,” Santa said.
Echoing this sentiment, Lawlor said a major goal of Malloy’s criminal justice reforms has been to restore confidence in the criminal justice system by making it fairer. The first big change, he said, was the implementation of the Risk Reduction Earned Credits program in 2011, which grants early release for low-risk offenders who have displayed good conduct in prison, while keeping high-risk offenders behind bars longer.
Other major reforms included the decriminalization of small-scale marijuana possession, raising the age at which offenders are tried as adults from 16 to 18 and the Second Chance Initiatives, Lawlor said. Approved by the state legislature in 2015, the Second Chance Initiatives eliminated mandatory sentencing minimums for drug possession, reducing it from a felony to a misdemeanor charge, and established expedited pardon and parole for nonviolent crimes.
“Connecticut has been the leader in the country in proving that we can reduce crime and prison population at the same time,” Lawlor said. “Indeed a certain way to increase crime is to lock up low-level offenders and make it impossible for them to go forward.”
Lawlor also noted that the racial disparities in prison population have also seen a sizable reduction, since minorities were disproportionately impacted by the policies of mass incarceration. The number of black and Hispanic inmates has declined by 29 percent, compared to 20 percent for white inmates.
Others, however, are less eager to heap praise on the governor. Todd Fernow, a law professor at the University of Connecticut, cautioned that there has been no conclusive data establishing a correlation between the governor’s policies and the decline in prison population.
“They haven’t had their policies enforced long enough to be able to attribute the decline over the last ten years to anything they have done in particular,” Fernow said.
The governor’s reform proposals have also received some steely responses from the Connecticut General Assembly. While most of his past reforms passed with significant bipartisan support, several of Malloy’s criminal justice proposals, dubbed “Second Chance Initiatives 2.0,” failed last year in the face of resistance from both sides of the aisle. Still, Lawlor noted, one proposal — the bail reform — was successfully enacted this year, Lawlor noted.
And with the governor’s lagging popularity, some lawmakers have proposed rolling back the governor’s programs. State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, circulated a letter in March to end the Risk Reduction Earned Credits program, saying “violent felons are getting out of prison early and they are committing murders, rapes and other horrible crimes.”
Based on his own experience as a state representative, Lawlor said that many legislators oppose criminal justice reforms because they are worried about being blamed for high-profile crime cases. Despite the challenges, the governor is poised to renew his push to raise the age limit of juvenile court to 21 for nonviolent offenders, he said.
The declining prison population is set to relieve some fiscal pressure from the state. In an online statement on Malloy’s website, Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple called the closing of Enfield, which will save the state $6.5 million each year, “a responsible and appropriate decision” in light of the state’s forecast on inmate populations and current fiscal challenges.
This trend, however, may also mean fewer jobs for correctional officers. Collin Provost, president of the Connecticut State Prison Employees Union, issued a written statement saying the decision “gives us reason to be concerned from a broader policy standpoint.”
The governor’s office said that the 190 workers at Enfield Correctional Institution will be reassigned to other facilities. According to Lawlor, the decrease in the number of correctional officers has resulted solely from attrition.
But Provost disputed the claim in an interview with the News, saying that the state indirectly laid off several hundred workers in 2015 on the ground of “budgetary constraints.”
Enfield Correctional Institution was established in 1962.
Malcolm Tang | firstname.lastname@example.org