Pew tracks sharp rise in ‘punishment rate’ in CT

As the General Assembly considers reforms intended to divert younger defendants from prison, a national study concludes that Connecticut moved farther than nearly every state in embracing harsher punishment over a 30-year period marked by soaring U.S. incarceration rates.

The Pew Charitable Trusts issued a study Wednesday that uses two measures — a long-used imprisonment rate and a new, more nuanced “punishment rate” – to measure how the criminal justice system in the U.S. became far more punitive from 1983 to 2013.

Connecticut’s punishment rate rose by 318 percent, the third highest increase in nation and nearly twice the 165 percent increase nationally, while its imprisonment rate grew by 199 percent, the 17th highest jump.

The shift left Connecticut ranked 13th nationally in its punishment rate and 34th in its imprisonment rate.

The imprisonment rate is a measure of people in prison per 100,000 residents and is a standard metric used by criminal justice analysts. Pew says its new punishment rate is intended to supplement, not replace the imprisonment rate as an analytical tool.

“This new metric gauges the size of the prison population relative to the frequency and severity of crime reported in each jurisdiction, putting the imprisonment rate in a broader context,” Pew says.

The release of the study at midday coincided with the legislature’s public hearing of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s latest “second chance” legislation, which would change the bail system and treat some defendants as juveniles until they reach age 21.

Michael P. Lawlor, the governor’s criminal justice adviser, said the punishment rate data reinforced the administration’s position that offenders convicted of serious crimes get significant prison sentences.

Susan Storey, the state’s chief public defender, agreed that the state’s criminal justice system has historically embraced harsher penalties.

“It does not surprise me, unfortunately, given my experience,” she testified during a Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday of the report from Pew.

The governor’s reforms provoked opposition from some Republicans during the hearing.

Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, said he appreciated the governor’s desire to save younger people from a criminal record for minor crimes, but he questioned closing criminal cases form public view for defendants who otherwise are considered adults.

“I don’t want their lives to be ruined,” Kissel said. “I’m not necessarily sure that having their names in the paper ruins their lives.”

Rep. Rosa C. Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, said she was concerned that victims of crime would be unable to track cases that are shifted to juvenile court.

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