Outgoing governor Dannel Malloy has received mixed reviews over the last eight years. His approval rating has made him one of the least popular governors in state history. But many see the democratic governor’s changes to the criminal justice system as his greatest success.
Malloy gained national attention for the progressive changes he made in criminal justice. Some highlights include repealing the death penalty, decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, closing five prisons, and downsizing four others. He also made changes to the bail system and passed some of the strictest gun laws in the country.
Mike Lawlor is the state’s outgoing criminal justice policy adviser. He said one of the most significant changes that happened on Malloy’s watch was the implementation of what’s known as “raise the age” legislation, which initially passed in 2008. The measure raises the age of legal responsibility from 16 to 18 -- keeping teens out of adult prisons.
“A lot of alternatives were provided starting back then to educators, to law enforcement officers, to service providers, to families, to local governments, to try and find alternative ways to deal with kids who are acting out,” Lawlor said. “The good news is many of those reforms have been operationalized. Now we can look at the results.”
And those results, said Lawlor, show a more than 60 percent decrease in arrests among 10- to 17-year-olds since 2008. Arrests of 18- to 20-year-olds fell by almost the same amount.
But the changes haven’t been without controversy. Republican leader Len Fasano agrees that young people who make mistakes shouldn’t have to pay for them for the rest of their lives. But, he said, a statewide rash of car thefts has given him pause about the raise-the-age legislation, specifically for repeat juvenile offenders.
“Now look, if a kid steals a car the first time and you want to cut him a break because it’s a joy ride, I get that,” Fasano said. “But when someone is doing it three, four times and we’re holding them, releasing them, then catching them the next night, we have to get tougher on this, and we’ve got to send a message. Otherwise what are we doing?”
Many in law enforcement agree. New Haven police officer Christian Bruckhart said that raise-the-age has made the job more difficult.
“Some of our intel guys will chase the same kids over and over again for stealing cars -- multiple times,” Bruckhart said. “And they don’t care because there’s no consequences. I understand academically the rationale -- well, you know, brains haven’t fully developed, etc., etc. Listen, have some of these academics come out and ride and try to talk to some of these kids themselves, in a street environment. Have them talk to these kids and see.”
Mike Lawlor insists there is no evidence to show that the raising-the-age legislation has caused these problems.
Lawlor said a large drop in reported crime, with a simultaneous reduction in the number of young people coming into the criminal justice system, is the most significant change that has occurred during the last eight years of the Malloy administration.
“It’s true, nationally these numbers are down, but there’s no state that’s had a drop similar to Connecticut’s,” Lawlor said. “We are definitely the national leader in reducing, especially violent crime, but arrests generally of young people.”
Another controversial initiative of the Malloy years is the Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program, which provides an incentive for some prisoners to earn up to five days off their sentences per month. It was established in 2011 and later refined. Senator Fasano said the program is far from perfect.
“I still think there has not been enough attention to parole violators,” Fasano said. “I believe that honestly. We’ve got to refine it better. We’ve got to make it stronger. You’re on parole, you violate the parole, you go back to jail.”
Fasano thinks juvenile justice legislation and the Risk Reduction Earned Credit program are the most pressing challenges in criminal justice facing the incoming Lamont administration.
But other aspects of the Malloy administration’s work have attracted wide, bipartisan support, particularly efforts to change the prison environment; putting reentry programs into practice and offering inmates educational opportunities and job skills.
Malloy started two programs for young offenders in the state’s prison system - the TRUE unit at the Cheshire Correctional Institution and the WORTH unit at The York Correctional Institution for women. The programs focus on rehabilitation to prepare qualifying inmates for reintegration back into the community.
Twenty-one-year-old Vanessa Alvarado was one of the first participants in the program at York Correctional.
“I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with my life, my career,” Alvarado said. “I never had hobbies. I never had things like that. So, to learn my interests and deep down what’s going on inside of me — it’s been the best part of my life so far. I’m so blessed to be here.”
Acknowledging there’s still much work to be done, Lawlor and Malloy have praised lawmakers and colleagues for helping them to make dramatic, sweeping changes. Lawlor said the state is well on its way to achieving their fundamental goals; to reduce crime, save money, and restore confidence in the criminal justice system.