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Connecticut began the year with 16,167 inmates in its prisons and jails, the lowest number since John G. Rowland celebrated his second New Year’s Day as governor on Jan. 1, 1997. The drop comes as arrests fell by nearly 5 percent in 2014, while the number of young people entering prison has fallen for a half-dozen consecutive years.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who intends in coming weeks to propose a “second-chance society” plan to enhance employment prospects of ex-offenders to further depress falling recidivism rates, welcomed the data as an affirmation of a new bipartisan approach to crime.

Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush are the among the Republicans who have voiced support for sentencing reforms that have nudged the federal court system away from mandatory minimum sentences on drug offenses enacted in response to the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

“I think one of the more interesting political turnarounds on this has been Jeb Bush,” Malloy said, noting that Bush’s status as a likely presidential candidate elevates the issue. “He advocated widespread opening of additional prisons and incarceration of just about as many people as you could incarcerate. But he’s also part of the movement now that recognizes that that initial incarceration can be very damaging, both for society and the individual incarcerated.”

The new Connecticut data was in the state Office of Policy and Management’s “monthly indicator report” released Wednesday. It is a monthly snapshot of the criminal justice and prison systems that is typically issued without wider notice.

But Malloy, who began his second term a week ago, has signaled that he intends to spend time and political capital on criminal-justice policy. The administration seems intent on first reinforcing that crime is at historical lows, providing an opening for a new political conversation.

The governor took time at an unrelated press conference Wednesday to talk about prison population hitting an 18-year low, coincidentally on the same day that The New York Times published an analysis, “In a Safer Age, U.S. Rethinks Its ‘Tough on Crime’ System.”

The thrust of the analysis was that the nation embarked on a tougher approach to crime in the late 80s and early 90s, not realizing that crime already peaked — and had started a decades-long decline.

There is hardly a unanimous consensus on the migration away from tough sentences, either nationally or in Connecticut. The Malloy administration’s “Risk Reduction Earned Credit” program, which allows inmates to earn a maximum of five days a month off their sentence, has been controversial since its creation in 2011.

The crack spike

The federal prison population exploded from 24,000 to more than 200,000 after Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences in 1980s, when a Democratic Congress and a Republican administration competed to be the toughest on crime. Many states followed suit.

Michael P. Lawlor, the governor’s adviser on criminal justice issues at the Office of Policy and Management, said the spike in violent crime was real, lasting from 1980s into the early 1990s, much of it driven by the drug trade, especially the crack epidemic.

“It came and went,” Lawlor said of crack.

But the mandatory sentences remained.

“Some of the things done in the late 1980s actually made it worse,” Lawlor said, saying a push for longer mandatory sentences “had unintended consequences. To a large extent, what’s been going on here and elsewhere in the country is undoing the mechanisms that led to those unintended consequences.”

Some legislators pushed for a “three strikes law” after a horrific home invasion and triple murder in Cheshire in 2007. Some versions would have imposed a mandatory life sentence on a third felony conviction.

California was a leader, imposing a three-strike law in 1994 that allowed the imposition of a life sentence on a third felony conviction, even for a non-violent crime. Two years ago, California passed Proposition 36, a referendum that narrowed the law and created a path to release for nearly 3,000 inmates serving life sentences.

The change, which was estimated to save California $90 million annually, was endorsed by the San Francisco Green Party and Grover Norquist, the conservative anti-tax activist. Predictions it would lead to higher crime rates have not come to pass.

Connecticut has made its own changes. In Malloy’s first year as governor, the legislature passed a relatively modest reform, decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Years earlier, the legislature also raised the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, reversing a policy that placed Connecticut in a small minority of states that treated offenders as adults at the ages of 16 and 17.

The law was phased in, taking 16-year-olds out of the adult system in 2010 and 17-year-olds out in 2012.

Fears that the change would overwhelm the juvenile justice system have not come to pass, Lawlor said. In fact, he said, the data shows that arrests of young people with no criminal history have fallen steadily.

A subset of data in the OPM report shows that 3,093 men under age 25 with no prison histories were incarcerated on a pre-trial status. (With no county jails, the state prison system houses persons awaiting trial and those convicted.) By 2013, that number had fallen to 1,672, a 46 percent decrease.

Criminologists warn against drawing correlations between the drop in crime and any single policy or demographic factor. Lawlor said he believes that several things are working in concert, including a shift in policing strategies to prevention, as well as a more sophisticated targeting of where to devote resources.

The chiefs of police in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven all are committed to community policing, and all three cities have seen significant drops in shootings and other violent crime. In the courts and prison system, more attention is paid to assessing offenders.

“We’ve gotten a lot better sorting out offenders based on risk,” he said.

Connecticut’s Shrinking Prison Population
The January 1 prison census over the past decade
Year Population
2015 16,167
2014 16,626
2013 16,439
2012 17,022
2011 17,746
2010 18,053
2009 18,978
2008 19,438
2007 18,902
2006 17,928
Office of Policy and Management

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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