Fault Lines
28 April 2017

Connecticut’s Second Chance Solution

Apr. 6, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy is a man on a mission to reform his State’s criminal justice system.

Under Malloy, Connecticut has decriminalized marijuana possession, repealed mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession and implemented a previously adopted law raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.

His initiatives have garnered national attention, because they have managed to pull off the apparent miracle of reducing prison population and decreasing the State’s crime rate at the same time. Rather than equating public safety with increased incarceration, the self-described “progressive Democrat” has touted the idea of a “second-chance society” designed to decrease prison populations.  Having already achieved a seat at the President Obama’s State of the Union address and the 2016 John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage” Award,  the Governor is still striving ways to improve the system.

As reported in The Harford Courant, Governor Malloy is now focusing on reducing the number of revocations for parolees based on relatively minor rule violations.  Specifically, the Governor is targeting those parolees being revoked while out on “special parole.”

Special parole began 16 years ago. It differs from regular parole because judges give it to offenders at the time of sentencing, as in “You’re getting five years in prison, followed by five years of special parole.”  It was intended for a somewhat select group of hard-core offenders and inmates who are chronic violators of another form of community supervision – probation.

The mere fact that such a thing as “special parole” exists in Connecticut is impressive in the first place, because its very premise shows a willingness to avoid a “cookie cutter” approach to all offenders.   There is a clear difference between the dangerous offender and the offender that is patently terrible at following the enormous amount of rules that come with community supervision.  The Special Parole sentencing option applies the stick before the carrot, which gives its parolees more incentive to stay on the straight and narrow once released.

Unfortunately, that “straight and narrow” seems to be more difficult than one might think.

In an average month, 100 offenders finish the prison portion of their sentence and are released to special parole. Within that same month, as many as 50 special parolees typically return to prison, mainly for rule violations.  This high “remand rate” has drawn the attention of Malloy’s criminal-justice advisers.

Based on his successful track record, thus far, it actually feels reassuring to hear that Governor Malloy is focusing on another area of the criminal justice system that needs fixing. Unfortunately, the issue of parole revocations is filled with several Catch-22s.

There is broad agreement that the state should supervise offenders in the community, helping them build a work history, receive counseling, and repair tattered family relations before their sentences are done. The question is whether a parolee who has failed a drug test or two, blown a curfew, missed job or parole or counseling appointments, or even gone off the grid for a time, should be sent back to prison for months.

From Governor Malloy’s point of view, the positives of having parolees working and repairing their family relationships should be given greater deference than “minor” parole violations, such as a blown curfews, positive drug tests, and missed appointments. Unfortunately, in the minds of stricter “law and order” type folks, such as prosecutors and parole board members, this begs the question of just how much deference do the positives deserve to receive?

One big question comes to mind: Why have parole conditions, like not using drugs or not associating with gang members, if inmates know that they can break them?

That’s a fair point, and Governor Malloy is addressing it with a team of criminal-justice officials headed by his “point man on crime,” Michael Lawlor, a “former prosecutor, defense attorney, and House chairman of the judiciary committee.”

Lawlor noted that the prison-return rate in another form of supervised release – probation – was sky-high in the 1990s and early 2000s and was filling prisons. That trend was reversed by hiring back probation officers that had been laid off, adding new officers, and doing something called “managing the risk.”  That means judges and probation officers were keeping rule violators in the community and making sure treatment programs, mental-health counseling, job training and all the other resources were being exhausted.

Lawlor and the team of criminal-justice officials noted a highly troubling statistic in the process of special parole revocations: In 99% of all cases, special parolees were waiving their right to a preliminary hearing.

Every parolee returned to prison has the right to a preliminary hearing. It’s a chance for the parole board to review the case quickly, in a week or two, as opposed to the three months it takes for a revocation hearing.

It is widely seen as a good opportunity to assess a rule violator and perhaps return him to the community, maybe with stronger parole conditions, but with no additional prison time.

In other words, 99% of all parolees were opting out of a meeting that could potentially salvage their chance at continuing their freedom, which makes no sense. Although the criminal-justice team did not appear to level any accusations at anyone in particular, it was noted:

The parole officers in the field are the ones who advise violators that they have the right to a hearing. That is also the point where virtually all of the parolees are waiving the hearing.

Um, that’s not suspicious at all. Surely 99% of all parolees would much prefer to spend more time in prison, right?  Rather than make any negative accusations that parole field officers were totally leaning on parolees to not be a pain in the ass by asserting their right to a preliminary hearing, the team just tweaked the procedure a little bit:

As of March 1, the parole board began extending preliminary hearings to every parole violator.

Presumably, these preliminary hearings will have a strong focus on keeping the parolee out of prison and on being a productive citizen.   It would be difficult to argue against the merit of this ideal for a parolee that hasn’t reoffended.

Of all Governor Malloy’s changes to the Connecticut criminal justice system, none is particularly bizarre or overly creative. What differentiates him from the Old Guard is a willingness to think outside the box and apply common sense to problems.  He has rejected the ideal of “we’ve always done it this way” and strived to make changes.  Thus far, those changes are paying tremendous dividends.

It’s amazing to see what a little common sense can do.

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