Unified approach needed for corrections system

The fiscal challenges faced by the Governor and legislature have renewed questions about the nearly $700 million Department of Correction (DOC) budget. Although Connecticut’s prison population has dropped somewhat in the last few years, the overall prison population and the numbers of people under some kind of corrections supervision (parole, probation, etc.) has increased dramatically in the last three decades as a result of increased penalties, chiefly drug related.

Critics have noted the disparity between drug use and imprisonment rates of different racial groups and have suggested that non-violent crimes deserve alternative sentencing guidelines, all with the goal of decreasing the DOC budget.

Whether the budget should be the driving force behind these concerns or whether issues of fairness, morality, or even a review of the basic criminal justice approach to sentencing and incarceration should frame the discussion, there are practical realities that must be engaged.

Most of the inmates will eventually be released and most of them are ill prepared by prison for their release.  Programs for re-integration into society exist, but are too few in number. Training for useful employment after release and even GED classes are limited or non-existent. ‘Tier programs’ address the inmates arrested while using drugs, but without modern medical assistance.

Transitional housing to allow for inmates to experience a gradual and supervised move back to the community are limited by available beds and a ‘not in my back yard’ mind set. Released prisoners not going to transitional housing are commonly dropped off at a very early morning hour with only the clothes on their back, no arrangements for housing (leading to homeless shelters), and limited or no funds.  They must fend for themselves in obtaining medical care and insurance, drug and/or mental health treatment, and searching for jobs.

Stringent transitional housing rules, capriciously enforced, may limit ex-inmates’ ability to search for jobs, obtain funds for independent living and transportation, and integrate themselves within the community without resorting to renewing their association with former associates involved in illegal activities. Those without the benefit of transitional housing or families to return to are worse off, forced to resort to homeless shelters and to hustling for survival.  Failure to follow strict or unreasonable parole demands may result in being remanded to prison, the most common reason for a person to be in prison.

The answer, in part, is not just more and better transitional housing and programs for integration, but fewer prisoners. It is cheaper to treat drug addiction outside the prison. Federal officials report that the cost of treatment is only 14% of what it costs to incarcerate problem drug users.

For those imprisoned, however, better preparation for discharge is imperative.  Shifting the DOC budget from incarceration to prevention and treatment would free up funds for expanding training programs inside the prisons: anger management, stress reduction, medication assisted treatment of opiate addiction, vocational training, and job readiness.  For many inmates, especially those incarcerated for drug offenses or the very young, the exposure to life in prison hardens their outlook on life and increases their chances of returning to prison.

We have a complex criminal justice system with many parts.  Although strides have been made to integrate these parts, entrenched advocates control each.  Most advocates are enlightened and making serious efforts to improve the functions under their responsibility, but as a society we have had difficulty in dealing with offenders from a sensible and integrated criminal justice standpoint, for example, how to balance public safety and punishment, the identification of potentially violent offenders, and a more effective control of the parolee.  We haven’t addressed from a criminal justice standpoint the fact that illegal drug use, for example, although approximately equal in all social and racial groups has ended up with more minorities in prison and the majority racial group being spared prison.

As a society we are capable of engaging this challenge if properly informed but we must resist the temptation to repeat dogmatic positions, indulge in moral rants, and turning off to new ideas and information. An overall review of our criminal justice process from beginning to end would be timely.  Engaging the public in discussions such as those being considered by some to create a united agency combining the community corrections functions and services of the Board of Pardons and Parole, DOC, the Court Services Support Division, and others would be a start the right direction.

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