An emotional look back at justice reforms for Malloy, Lawlor

December 28, 2018

In an emotional final meeting of the commission that oversees criminal justice reform, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his top crime policy aide, Mike Lawlor, touted the biggest accomplishments of the last eight years on Thursday — overall reductions in violent crime, arrests and prison populations.

While these changes have led to the state’s reputation as a national leader on crime and corrections reform, Lawlor noted those who work in the system aren’t quick to brag about the successes. That’s partly because there is still so far to go.

But both he and Malloy expressed optimism in the upcoming tenure of Gov.-elect Ned Lamont.

“I have every expectation that the extraordinary progress we’ve made in recent years is going to continue,” Lawlor said, praising the Lamont administration’s appointment of known-prison reformer Rollin Cook, from Utah, as the state’s next correction commissioner.

Malloy said he was most proud of ending a “high school-to-prison pipeline,” sparked by increasing the age of juvenile jurisdiction in criminal cases from 16 to 18 and working with public school systems to reduce the number of expulsions and suspensions.

“To see those numbers of suspensions drop in most of our high schools has been quite remarkable at the same time that we’ve seen increases in high school graduation rates almost entirely driven in our urban school systems,” Malloy said. “So what are we proudest of? Working together to develop outcomes that are far better for the broader society and far better for the individual as well.”

The overall reduction in the state’s prison population is the result of fewer young people falling into cycles of criminal recidivism, Lawlor said, pointing to the changing demographics by age of the state’s inmates. The state currently has just over 13,000 inmates, a far cry from 20,000 in the early spring of 2008.

Several state prisons have been shut down as a result.

Total arrests statewide are down 41 percent from a peak in 2009. The total number of crimes reported to police, compiled by the state police, was 71,000 last year — the lowest since 1968. In 1991, a year marked by gang violence, it hit 175,000 crimes.

A teary-eyed Cathy Malloy, who is co-chairwoman of Lamont’s transition committee on criminal justice, sat in the front row as her husband and Lawlor recounted the state’s progress in criminal justice, much of which involved her input.

“It’s a huge passion of his and mine,” she said. After Lamont takes over on Jan. 9, she added, “I’m still staying on with this.”

Malloy credited the first lady for her own work on the reforms, and recognized her for organizing a landmark conference held at the Cheshire Correctional Institute in October.

Using a variety of positive statistics, Lawlor said he believes the progress made under the Malloy administration will create long-term savings in both time and money the state can redirect.

“We’re not just closing prisons to save money,” said Lawlor, who was co-chairman of the General Assembley’s powerful judicial committee as a longtime Democratic state representative from East Haven. “We’re closing them because we don’t need them. There’s fewer and fewer people coming in the front door.”

Lawlor, the point man along with Malloy himself in Malloy’s sweeping, 2013 gun-control reform after the Sandy Hook shootings, said there is much more work to be done. For example, while there are 35 percent fewer African Americans in the criminal justice system than there were a decade ago, African American and Latino inmates still make up 68 percent of the overall prison population, which is far disproportionate to minority representation in the state’s general population.

The Malloy programs of the last eight years involved teamwork between agencies, Lawlor said, for example, making sure more judges and prosecutors visited prisons. Most important, he said, it has been 14 years since a police officer was killed in the line of duty.

“Of all the things that have happened, that is the one I am most proud of,” Lawlor said, starting to choke up as he ended the day’s event at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. He hit the desk and said, “Knock on wood.”

He told a story about Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, now co-chairwoman of the appropriations committee, working on the bill to extend the age of juvenile prosecution. “I said, ‘Toni, you can pass a bill, but unless you stay on top of it … It will just be a bill signing ceremony and nothing else.’”

”You have to give it some time,” Lawlor said. He is leaving state government to become a professor at the University of New Haven.

Lawlor again choked up while highlighting the unlikely partnership between Malloy and Scott Semple, the state’s retiring Department of Correction commissioner. Semple, a Republican and 30-year department employee, led the state’s prison reform despite his formative experience when the primary mission of prisons was punishment.

“I just want to say thank you.” Then a very long pause. “This was an extraordinary partnership...If you treat people as human beings, with dignity and respect, they will act like that. I was kind of happy to be riding shotgun on this whole thing.”

Hearst Columnist Dan Haar contributed to this story.

kkrasselt@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2563; @kaitlynkrasselt

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