Then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced a prison population milestone outside a correctional facility in Hartford last year. mark pazniokas /
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced a prison population milestone outside a correctional facility in Hartford.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced a prison population milestone outside a correctional facility in Hartford. Correction Commissioner Scott Semple is second from left. mark pazniokas /

Connecticut’s prison population briefly fell below 15,000 inmates this month for the first time in nearly 20 years, a drop Gov. Dannel P. Malloy attributes to the bipartisan passage last year of reforms aimed at reducing incarceration without compromising public safety.

“Our prison population is now down nearly 25 percent from its all-time high of 19,893 inmates in 2008,” Malloy said Friday, marking the drop at an event staged beneath coils of razor wire outside the Hartford Correctional Center. “Connecticut is leading the way nationally in reforming the criminal justice system.”

U.S. crime rates have been falling for years, but Connecticut has outpaced most of the nation in recent years and expects to do so again this fall when the FBI publishes its uniform crime report for 2015. Officials say violent crime dropped another 7 percent in Connecticut last year after a 9.7 percent drop in 2014, the fourth biggest drop in the U.S.

“Our residents are safer than they have been in two generations,” Malloy said. “Each year, there are fewer and fewer victims of crime, especially — especially — violent crime. The crime rate in Connecticut is now at a 50-year low.”

A key element of the reforms passed in 2015 was the reclassification of most drug possession crimes as misdemeanors. Non-partisan legislative analysts predicted last year that the changes would mean 1,120 fewer inmates. Malloy said they called it right: The actual drop was 1,130.

Other reforms were thwarted this year by politics and finances.

The legislature rejected Malloy’s proposal to overhaul the bail system and handle criminal defendants in the juvenile system until age 21. Correction Commissioner Scott Semple conceded an interview Friday he’s had to downsize plans for a special prison to house inmates aged 18 to 25.

But Malloy says the data supports the approach that he and governors in other states have taken to reduce the inmate population, which they say has saved money and spared non-violent offenders a criminal record, all without risking public safety.

The prison population was 15,023 on Sept. 1, a 7 percent drop from 16,168 a year earlier, according to the state’s monthly prison report. The 11,182 sentenced inmates – Connecticut prisons also hold pretrial prisoners who cannot make bail –  was the lowest first-of-the-month sentenced population since November 1993.

The overall inmate census fell to 14,998 on Sept. 3 and 14,984 on Sept. 6, before climbing to 15,054 on Sept. 7, a bump state officials attribute to an influx of prisoners after a three-day holiday weekend.

The prison population is actually falling faster than projections. The criminal justice unit at the Office of Policy and Management had projected a population of 15,613 for September.

The governor’s 2015 “Second Chance” bill not only lessened penalties for simple drug possession, but also repealed mandatory minimum sentences for possession within 1,500 feet of a school or day care, a law that had the unintended consequence of racially disparate penalties.

Nearly every house and apartment in the state’s largest cities, which have heavy minority populations, were covered by the overlapping school zones. The result: Possession in a home carried a higher penalty in the cities than in suburbs.

Malloy had a tougher session in 2016, an election year for legislators.

The General Assembly declined to take up Malloy’s proposal to eliminate bail for minor crimes, a measure he says would have saved some defendants being jailed pretrial because of their inability to afford modest bails. Another more controversial measure would have handled defendants in juvenile court up to age 21, saving them from an adult criminal record.

The state’s budget problems have forced Semple to downsize ambitions for segregating prisoners age 25 and younger in a separate facility, an approach Semple saw on a tour of prisons in Germany and wanted to replicate in Connecticut with Malloy’s support.

A year later, the facility is not open.

Semple said he cannot afford to transform an entire prison into a facility for prisoners no older than 25. Instead, the department intends to begin with a 100-bed housing unit where staff can try a more therapeutic approach geared to impulsive younger adults.

The 18- to 25-year-old inmate population has ranged in recent months from 1,400 to 1,700, down from about 3,400 a year ago when he began work on the project. The new unit would concentrate on inmates from age 22 to 25, since the Manson Youth Institution already segregates prisoners through age 21.

Malloy acknowledged that budget concerns will play a role in attempting further reforms, such as expanding services and counseling offered at four community reintegration centers Semple created to prepare prisoners for release.

Prisoners say too much of their stay in Connecticut prisons is just marking time. In the reintegration centers, inmates are busy all day with classes and counseling geared to improving chances that they will not return to crime.

The shrinking inmate population has made space available for the reintegration centers. Three units for men – one geared for veterans – are housed at Cybulski, a product of the 1990s prison building boom. The first was opened in April 2015.

Like the rest of government, the prison system is under pressure to cut expenses. The $693 million budget approved for the 2016 fiscal year was cut by $27 million to help the state avoid a deficit. Prison spending this year is expected to be no more than $612 million.

While Malloy attributed some of the shrinking prison population to his 2015 reforms, the reasons for a reduction in crime over the past two decades have been much debated.

In a study published in February 2015, the Brennan Center for Justice called the falling crime rate “one of the nation’s least understood recent phenomena.” Criminologists generally give some credit to the now-discredited boom in prison construction in the U.S., but the consensus is that incarceration increases eventually became counter-productive.

The aging of the Baby Boom generation also is cited. As Connecticut crime statistics for 2014 showed, the  biggest age cohorts responsible for crime are 15 to 19, 20 to 24, 25 to 29 and 30 to 34. The peak year for boomers to turn 34 was 1991.

Malloy said that the falling crime rate for the young is an indicator that the prison system will continue to shrink.

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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