Gubernatorial candidates split on justice reforms, but quietly

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

The governor and first lady in a roundtable talk with Cheshire inmates in May.

Overlooked in a campaign consumed by fiscal issues, criminal-justice reforms enacted by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy are a quiet wedge issue in the race to succeed him, with Republican Bob Stefanowski taking advice from the governor’s loudest critic on crime, Sen. Len Suzio of Meriden.

Democrat Ned Lamont and petitioning candidate Oz Griebel recently published outlines on criminal justice issues, and in debates they have generally applauded the legislative and executive policies pursued by Malloy under the umbrella of what he calls his “Second Chance” initiatives, which are part of a national reassessment of an era of mass incarceration.

But this is not an issue voters have seen in television ads, nor one that the candidates often choose to highlight. A coalition led by ACLU Smart Justice, which campaigns for policies that reduce racial disparities in the justice system and offers alternatives to prison, complained in open letters to the candidates that none of them adequately address criminal justice.

“The financial and human costs of mass incarceration are too high for Connecticut’s candidates for governor to be silent on this issue,” said Gus Marks-Hamilton, an ACLU field organizer. “Connecticut has made critical progress toward criminal justice reform under Gov. Malloy, but our next governor, whoever that is, will have much more work to do.”

The open letters were sent on Oct. 25, and Lamont responded by posting a criminal justice platform four days later, followed by Griebel with a 12-point statement on Thursday. Stefanowski did not respond, the ACLU said. 

Stefanowski is alone in asserting Connecticut must be tougher in determining how much time inmates serve for violent crime, but he has never articulated how that would be accomplished. 

Judges in Connecticut impose sentences knowing that inmates can earn good-time credits in prison, but offenders convicted of violent crimes must serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentence — one of the tougher standards in the U.S.

According to the ACLU, Connecticut still imprisons more people on a per-capita basis than any other state in New England.

Suzio wants to bar inmates convicted of violent crimes from the state’s Risk Reduction Earned Credit program, which allows eligible inmates up to five days a month off their sentences. Suzio says inmates should serve every day of their sentences, taking away what correction officials say is an incentive for inmates to behave in custody and prepare for their release.

“I’m not suggesting that,” Stefanowski said in an interview. But he said that he generally finds Suzio persuasive that many inmates are being released too early. “He’s done a lot of analysis on this.”

But in a statement on his campaign web site, Stefanowski is unequivocal. He promises to end the “early release program,” as Suzio calls it. “There are countless articles about offenders who were released under this program only to commit more heinous crimes,” Stefanowski says on the site. “It’s time violent offenders serve their full sentence.”

Ending the program, however, would impact inmates serving time for non-violent crime. Another contradiction is that Stefanowski was unsure last week when asked if he would favor raising the requirement that all inmates convicted of violent crime serve at least 85-pecent of their sentences.

Stefanowski, a former global corporate executive who lived abroad for 10 years and didn’t vote for 16 years, has rarely strayed from his promise of slashing taxes and state spending, betraying annoyance when asked about non-fiscal issues.

“I’ve looked at all of them. I’ve looked at education. I’ve looked at health care. I’ve looked at the early release program, transportation,” Stefanowski said. “My primary [focus], it’s not a social agenda. It’s to get this economy moving.”

With Malloy’s approval ratings among the lowest in the U.S., Lamont has distanced himself from the two-term Democratic governor. A notable exception is his recently published policy statement promising to continue efforts to repeal laws with racially disparate impacts, end bail for minor crimes, and refocus prisons from punishment to rehabilitation.

“The contrast in this election couldn’t be clearer. Bob Stefanowski believes that our model policies are ‘out of control,’ “ Lamont says in an introduction to his criminal-justice plan. “I understand that we need to move forward, not backward, on reform.”

His platform endorses the Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program.

“I reject politicians’ scare tactics about criminal justice reform,” Lamont said. “We know our risk reduction program works, because we have lower crime rates and declining incarceration rates since its inception. Providing incentives for incarcerated people to earn their way to release improves prison staff safety and advances our criminal justice system’s rehabilitative mission.”

Lamont’s policy statement also commits him to legislation modeled on a bipartisan bill in Pennsylvania that would “automatically seal the criminal records of rehabilitated offenders,” removing an obstacle to decent housing and jobs for many offenders after release.

But on Saturday at a get-out-the-vote rally in the basement of the historically black Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Haven, Lamont made no mention of second chances, bail reform, or his support for guarding against “laws that, no matter their intentions, negatively impact communities of color.”

Sen. Gary Winfield of New Haven urged the crowd to work for Lamont, but he said later in an interview that urban Democrats have been frustrated by Lamont’s seeming reluctance to emphasize an issue that is both important to minority voters and separates him from Stefanowski. Winfield said Democrats still are concerned about being labeled soft on crime, even if those reforms increasingly are being embraced by conservative think tanks and red-state governors.

“I think in every election, criminal justice is that touchy issue that people don’t know how to talk about. I think you always have to be smart on crime,” Winfield said. “I think there has been a push to get Ned to say more about criminal justice. I have tried to get him to talk about the racial and ethnic impact statements, but campaigns have their own strategy.”

One of Malloy’s successes was overcoming GOP opposition and Democratic reluctance to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for simple drug possession in school zones and reclassifying possession crimes as misdemeanors. Spreading 1,500 feet from the property line of every school, day care and public housing complex, the zones cover nearly every home in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford. The result was stiffer penalties for the same crime in cities than in suburbs. 

Non-partisan legislative analysts predicted that the changes passed in 2015 would mean 1,120 fewer inmates. The actual drop a year after passage was 1,130.

Rep. William Tong, the co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee and the Democratic nominee for attorney general, did remind the Bethel A.M.E. audience of the criminal justice  reforms — including the new drug laws.

As he left, Lamont shrugged off his failure to talk about the issue, noting his unambiguous support for reforms on his web site — and the fact he was preceded by Tong.

“William Tong was on that issue —strong, so I didn’t feel a need to repeat it. But look, it works,” Lamont said of second-chance reforms. “It’s working across the country, and the crime rate is down and people are getting a second chance. And there are tens of thousands of folks who otherwise would be incarcerated and are now productive members of our society. And, by the way, the taxpayers are saving hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Clarification: Suzio says he wants to abolish the credit program only as it applies to inmates convicted of violent crimes. It originally said he wanted to abolish the program.

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