An occasional series examining the legacy of the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the challenges awaiting his successor, Ned Lamont.
On a Monday morning this past July, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sat in a small circle chatting and trading jokes with female inmates at Connecticut’s prison for women in Niantic, where he had gone to mark the opening of a new therapeutic unit.
“These women should not be defined by the mistakes of their past. Rather, they should be recognized for all of their future potential,” Malloy had earlier told a host of state officials and criminal justice advocates gathered in the dimly lit gymnasium at the York Correctional Institution.
It was one of 26 visits Malloy made to state prisons during his eight-year tenure, a practice he has said should be on every policymaker’s to-do list.
Those drop-in visits have been marked by an array of cellblock sit-downs, tours of new units, job-training program announcements, and even a “60 Minutes” taping during the Reimagining Justice conference, hosted by the governor and his wife, Cathy Malloy, inside a maximum-security prison in May.
Malloy made those visits as he executed many of his wide-ranging “Second Chance Society” initiatives and turned the state into a nationally watched laboratory for criminal justice reform.
Although the two-term Democratic governor prepares to leave office amid low approval ratings and continued blame for Connecticut’s persistent fiscal crisis, he will also depart with a reputation for being a national leader in the criminal justice arena.
Under his leadership, Connecticut has repealed the death penalty, closed prisons, decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, raised the age from 16 to 18 at which defendants are tried as adults for most crimes, streamlined the process for parole and pardons, and reduced penalties for non-violent drug crimes.
Sacred Heart University political science professor Gary Rose said he has not seen other Connecticut governors immerse themselves in criminal justice reform in the way Malloy has. But Rose said the electorate has been more inclined to judge governors on issues that affect them directly, like taxes, jobs, and infrastructure.
“I think really when people evaluate a governor or president, the criminal justice part of it is normally not factored into the equation, even though it probably should be,” Rose said.
Aside from winning national acclaim, Malloy’s reform efforts have been supported by diverse ideological interests in Connecticut ranging from the ACLU to the conservative Yankee Institute for Public Policy. But they have not been without controversy.
Some Republicans criticized one of Malloy’s key reforms, which allows inmates to earn time off their sentences as a reward for good behavior, while others were aggravated by the governor’s aggressive push for change.
Deputy House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, credited Malloy for some of his successes in the criminal justice arena, such as reaching a bipartisan compromise in the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana.
But Candelora also said he wishes the governor had moved more deliberatively.
“Some of the reforms that he did, I think, he did much too quickly and refused to take the time to assess the impacts on our state,” Candelora said. “There were times when this system certainly had a dramatic, negative impact on residents of this state.”
There were also times when Malloy appeared to push Republicans too far. In 2015, the House GOP staged a five-hour walkout after the governor criticized Republicans for opposing his plan to stop racially disparate drug sentencing.
Republicans fought Malloy’s proposal to repeal stiffer penalties for drug possession within 1,500 feet of a school or day care, which exposes most urban drug defendants to enhanced sentences. Malloy called the law “patently unfair and, if not racist in intent, is racist in its outcome.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, complained Malloy was suggesting the opposition was racist. “He is trying to make like we don’t agree with him, we’re bad people. It’s shameful. It’s vile,” Klarides said. “It’s your classic bully mentality.”
Malloy prevailed. The law was repealed.
State officials have pointed to substantial decreases in crime, arrests, and prison population as indicators of the success of this and other reforms.
Connecticut’s total number of arrests has dropped by 41 percent since 2009, according to the state’s Criminal Justice and Policy & Planning Division, and its inmate population has fallen to 13,191, a 33 percent drop over the past decade.
The state’s decreasing incarceration rate, and decline in crime, aligns with data that shows descending crime rates across the U.S. and a nationwide shift toward reversing growth in prison populations through reforms.
Michael P. Lawlor, the governor’s top criminal justice adviser, said Malloy’s drive for reform stems from his experience as a New York City prosecutor, as well as a soft spot for the underdog.
“Whether its gays, or people being put up in the criminal justice system, or people with disabilities … not withstanding his sort of porcupine-like personality, in reality on topics like that he’s second to none, in my opinion, in terms of being willing to fight regardless of what the opposition is,” Lawlor said.
The triumvirate of reformers
Malloy’s ability to implement broad changes to the criminal justice system was helped by a strong partnership with Lawlor and DOC Commissioner Scott Semple.
The three worked together to implement broad reforms at a time when a shrinking inmate population and falling crime rate created the necessary conditions for those changes.
Semple, a Republican who has worked in the Department of Correction for more than 30 years, was serving as the department’s interim commissioner in 2014 and not initially on Malloy’s shortlist for a permanent successor.
Semple’s only child, Matthew Joseph, 15, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer just weeks after Malloy put him temporarily in charge of the department. Before he died on New Year’s Day in 2015, Semple’s son encouraged him to accept Malloy’s offer to become commissioner.
The correction commissioner said he forged a strong relationship with Malloy, and, because the governor had prior criminal justice knowledge, the two could readily speak in detail about policy and ideas.
“You have this perfect recipe of folks that were involved in trying to implement criminal justice reform and we all melded well together in order to move the agenda,” said Semple.
At the final Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission (CJPAC) meeting last month, Lawlor became emotional when pictures of the governor and Semple, and then the three men together, flashed across the screen during his power point presentation.
“This was an extraordinary partnership … if you treat people like human beings, with dignity and respect, they will act like that,” said Lawlor, who will resume his job at the University of New Haven this month as an associate professor of criminal justice. “I was kind of happy to be riding shotgun on this whole thing as the head cheerleader.”
Malloy, who dropped into the meeting, said he could not have accomplished what he did without Lawlor or Semple.
Malloy was surrounded by a talented team, agreed Nick Turner, the executive director of the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice reform group that has found a willing partner in Connecticut.
“Malloy has taken this stuff seriously and really changed the conversation—he really walked the walk,” Turner said.
A tour of Germany’s prison system sparks change
In June of 2015, Malloy and Semple went as the Vera Institute’s guests on a five-day tour of prisons in Germany to see a corrections system focused on therapy and individual reform, not retribution.
There, they saw cells that looked more like dorms, and inmates wearing civilian clothes and cooking their own food.
During a live-streamed Reimagining Prison conference in October that toggled between the Cheshire Correctional Institution and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Malloy said touring the German prisons with Semple was one of the reasons he has embraced criminal justice reform.
The governor said that trip demonstrated how Germany views prison as “an opportunity for change and we simply tend to look at prison as a punishment vehicle and we should exact the highest possible price.”
“If we could change that dynamic in the United States, then we would have less crime, lower rates of recidivism, and we could really turn lives around,” Malloy said.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States incarcerates 655 people per 100,000, while Germany imprisons 76 people per 100,000.
The trip was the catalyst for the T.R.U.E. unit Semple would later develop in partnership with the Vera Institute at the Cheshire Correctional Institution.
The unit, modeled on a prison for young adults in Germany, is a therapeutic community for the most disruptive and impulsive population in prison, inmates age 18 to 25.
In explaining the need for the unit, Semple has repeatedly pointed to neuroscience research showing that the frontal lobes, so crucial to executive functions like planning and impulse control, do not fully mature until age 25.
“When I saw that particular facility it really struck me and I thought, ‘that’s something we could bring back to Connecticut’,” Semple said.
There, young inmates are guided by specially trained correction officers and mentored by selected inmates serving life sentences, while engaging in activities with their families to help prepare them for reintegration.
That unit currently houses 67 inmates ages 18 to 25, with 10 older inmates serving as mentors. The program spurred the creation of a mirroring W.O.R.T.H. unit at York Correctional Institution this year, where there are now nine older mentors and 20 younger inmates in the unit.
“There’s a real ambition to do things differently and they are unafraid to take a risk,” Turner said.
Turner said both therapeutic units have shown it’s “all hands on deck and [there is] a level of commitment from uniformed correction officers through the warden, through the leadership of the DOC, Mike Lawlor and the governor.”
Those therapeutic programs are among a list of programs and initiatives Semple has introduced to try to taper recidivism among different offender subgroups.
The Cybulski Community Reintegration Center, a prison in Enfield dedicated to preparing inmates for re-entry into the community, is another one of those initiatives. The prison has general and specialized units that engage different prisoner populations in programs involving job skills, resume writing, and educational and vocational opportunities.
The DOC’s emphasis on showing inmates there’s an alternate path has become a common theme within the system.
The Malloy administration’s Risk Reduction Earned Credit (RREC) system is aimed at encouraging good behavior among offenders. It allows inmates to earn a maximum of five days a month off their sentences. Prisoners convicted of some of the most violent crimes are barred from earning these credits, however.
That practice is one of many adopted under the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal justice reform bill recently signed by President Donald Trump, that Malloy pushed through the Connecticut legislature.
Semple said there are other things he wished he could have accomplished.
“Most of the things we have been able to do have been on a bandaid budget and if we had additional resources we could have expanded the reintegration concept and the emerging adult concept,” Semple said.
Semple also wishes the department had assumed management of inmate health care from the University of Connecticut Health Center sooner than this past July.
“It’s a complicated endeavor that’s going to take some time to put on solid ground,” Semple said.
Prior to that transfer, UConn Health’s Correction Managed Health Care (CMHC) had overseen these services for the state’s prison system since 1997. That contract, which was worth $140 million in 2017, left lawmakers and civil rights groups with growing concerns and complaints about the quality of medical and mental health care being provided to inmates.
Numerous incidents, including an inmate giving birth in her prison cell last February, large budget cuts, lack of oversight, and troubling stories outlined in lawsuits, have fueled those concerns.
Last month, officials from the DOC and UConn Health said they didn’t keep records of the CMHC panel responsible for vetting prison doctors’ requests for patients to see specialists—making it impossible to determine if appropriate health care was delivered to the roughly 13,000 inmates in state prisons on any given day.
Keeping Connecticut’s foot on the pedal
The Malloy administration has tethered criminal justice reform to three goals — reducing crime, reducing spending, and restoring the public’s confidence in the system.
Lawlor said the decline in crime is clear, with 71,883 reported crimes to state police in 2017 compared to a peak of 177,068 in 1990—representing a 40 year low.
Although Connecticut’s violent crime rate remained nearly flat from 2016 to 2017, it was one of the state’s lowest rates since 1974. Connecticut and New Jersey had the largest decreases in violent crime in the nation over the last five years, according to a report by the state’s Office of Policy and Management.
Lawlor noted the Malloy administration has closed nine prisons since 2011, and a total of 5,444 beds have been taken offline because the state doesn’t need them.
“If we still had 20,000 inmates in our prison system we would easily be spending an extra $200 million a year to run the department of correction,” Lawlor said.
Lawlor said the third goal — restoring public confidence — is perhaps the biggest challenge. It is a task he said involves restoring confidence among victims of crime who believe they didn’t get justice, African Americans and Latinos who feel the system is unfair, and citizens as a whole.
Some initiatives aimed at rebuilding that confidence have involved collecting traffic stop data from every police department statewide, and reforming the procedure for collecting and processing rape kits (which health care workers use to collect physical evidence after a sexual assault), he said.
Lawlor said the most encouraging statistic is one that shows that youth arrests continue to drop steadily. If a person can reach age of 25 without being sent to prison for even one day, the odds they will ever be imprisoned in the future go down dramatically, he said.
“And the best harbinger for the future is that we know that this farm system for the prison system is drying out,” Lawlor said.
Earlier this month, Malloy attended the last meeting for the working group charged with recommending ways to improve housing re-entry for former inmates. At that meeting, state leaders and advocates praised the governor for his criminal justice reforms.
And while Malloy touted his administration’s wide-ranging reforms, he said the state has more to do—including his long-held conviction that Connecticut should expand the jurisdiction of juvenile courts to include offenders ages 18 to 20.
Malloy said he was the first governor to bring that measure up on a national level and has since inspired other states, like Vermont, Illinois, and Massachusetts, to consider it.
“We should not consider ourselves done, nor should the next administration take its foot off the pedal on this one,” Malloy said.
Malloy said he is encouraged that Gov.-Elect Ned Lamont will continue the momentum of his administration’s criminal justice reforms.
Last week, the governor said Lamont has publicly embraced a continuation of those policies.
“If he’s brave enough to appoint people that are going to send him recommendations and brave enough to embrace them, we have to assume that the work will continue,” Malloy said.
During a criminal justice policy group meeting in December, Lamont promised to take office with the ambition of improving Malloy’s record.
“For me, criminal justice reform is so important. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the smart thing to do,” Lamont told the group co-chaired by Cathy Malloy. Turning to the first lady, Lamont said, “this is something we’re going to continue to do in a serious way.”
Lamont should “keep heading in the same direction—he will be swimming against the tide if he doesn’t,” Turner said.
Lawlor and Semple have joined the governor in praising the incoming administration for choosing Rollin Cook as Connecticut’s next correction commissioner.
Cook stepped down in 2018 after five years as executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, where he left to praise from the state’s Republican governor, the ACLU and the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network.
At the last CJPAC meeting, Semple said Cook was highly recruited around the country and is likely the best available candidate.
“He’s highly respected on a national level and I think that we will continue to move the needle on criminal justice reform and correction reform here in our state,” Semple said.
After the meeting, Malloy reiterated that his work as a prosecutor sparked his passion for criminal justice reform.
“I recognized the disparate impacts on communities on racial lines or poverty lines, and I made a promise to myself back in probably the summer or fall of 1980 that if I was given the chance, I would change the system—and I have.”
Reporters Mark Pazniokas and Keith Phaneuf contributed to this story.