Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration stands at a crossroad. Down one path is real change and anti-racist legislation; down another are mere procedural reforms that leave a disastrous status quo mostly intact. The governor chose the wrong path in a recent letter sent to the legislature. In it, he proclaimed that he would call for a special session only after legislative leaders developed a bipartisan compromise, effectively shielding the legislative process from the public and likely stripping a civil rights bill of its most meaningful provisions.
If the governor’s near silence on protecting vulnerable communities of color from the ravages of COVID-19 is at all predictive, then this critical legislation will be whitewashed in the name of bipartisan consensus. The bill will likely call for more body cameras, better training, or a different iteration of community policing– all largely ineffective, procedural reforms that have failed to curb police violence against people of color. It will likely avoid tougher conversations like how to shift funding from police and corrections to more effective and equitable programming or how to implement accountable civilian oversight mechanisms.
The governor and legislators have a duty to develop legislation during this special session that will effectively confront counterproductive and discriminatory policing practices. At its core, this duty will require confronting the prison system.
For weeks now, the governor’s administration has been claiming a reduction in the prison population. In reality, the numbers demonstrate lackluster executive effort characterized by inadequate communication and racial disparities in the implementation of discretionary release. And, while the state’s prison population is down to levels not seen since May 1991, this trend is largely due to front end reductions. Only on the surface can this decrease be construed as a victory; if Gov. Lamont is actually serious about confronting the legacy of mass incarceration, he needs to commit to a real policy of long term decarceration that centers sustained reductions in correctional spending as well as the physical closure of prison facilities.
If the governor is lauding the fact that the state’s prison population is as low as it was in 1991, he should compare correctional spending in 1991 to correctional spending in 2020. In 1991, the state’s correction budget, adjusted for inflation, was approximately $495 million, dramatically less than today’s budget which allocates over $600 million to the Department of Correction. At minimum, a serious commitment to civil rights should include a proportional decrease of the state’s correctional budget by well over $100 million.
The state should reinvest those savings in black and Latinx communities and fund an independent agency to investigate and oversee the Department of Correction. Additional civil rights protections must also include the abolition of solitary confinement and the closing of numerous outdated and inhumane correctional facilities, beginning with Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s supermax prison.
A legislative commitment to decarceration is not only decades overdue, it is a concrete step to ameliorate the devastating impact of structural racism in this state. As of June 1, over 71% of people in the State’s prison system were black or Latinx, despite the fact that those two demographics make up only 26.5 % of the state’s overall population.
Another extraordinary fact: over 82% of people confined at Northern C.I. are people of color. Northern is a facility designed to subject people to long term solitary confinement, a practice that the United Nations recently condemned in Connecticut as akin to psychological torture. That we have a facility in this state which overwhelmingly imprisons black and brown people in conditions identified as psychological torture is damning, and our collective silence– Ned Lamont’s in particular– is shameful.
As the legislature charts a path forward in the special session, this state’s leadership must courageously confront uncomfortable truths. Substantive anti-racist policy will require legislators and Gov. Lamont to stop compromising at the expense of black and brown lives.
Joseph Gaylin is a Criminal Justice Fellow at Dwight Hall at Yale and is a steering committee member of Stop Solitary CT.