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Unlocking criminal justice reform

September 23, 2018

“Let us work. Let us live.”

It’s the political campaign season, and the Smart Justice rallying cry is being heard across Connecticut.

It was loud and clear at the first gubernatorial debate on Sept. 5, with justice reform advocates gathered at the entrance to the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford. The chants were heard last Monday in New Haven as advocates marched to the Shubert Theater where the third debate was taking place. And we expect to hear advocacy voices this coming Wednesday at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, site of the upcoming gubernatorial debate.

“Eliminating barriers to employment for people living with criminal records ... is key to anyone’s re-entry,” Smart Justice field organizer Anderson Curtis said during my recent telephone interview with him and other representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU-CT). “It’s about creating safer communities,” he said.

Curtis was elaborating upon the chants at these rallies in which Smart Justice participants advocate for investment in opportunity and jobs. The slogan on their banner and T-shirts: “PEOPLE, Not Prisons.”

Smart Justice Connecticut — officially launched in July 2018 — is an ACLU-CT initiative. It is part of a nationwide effort begun five years ago to end mass incarceration. The goals of the Connecticut initiative are to cut the state’s prison and jail population in half and end racial disparities in the justice system.

A critical component in Connecticut’s Smart Justice model — indeed its centerpiece — is the direction it receives from persons who have been impacted by the criminal justice system in immediate and personal ways. Its leadership consists of formerly incarcerated people.

“Many times we are unheard and uninvited,” said Curtis, who has been out of prison for 11 years. After his release, he earned an associate degree in addiction counseling, and has worked as a recovery support specialist. Most recently, he’s been working with ACLU-CT.

“We can no longer afford to stand on the sidelines,” he said.

Smart Justice Connecticut draws upon the expertise of people living with criminal records, like Curtis, in the belief that those closest to the situation are best able to offer innovative solutions to the problems of mass incarceration and its systemic inequities. Yet, those with this special, experiential expertise are typically kept out of the conversation. They remain furthest from the centers of political power, are excluded from decision-making, and lack the resources to effect change. Smart Justice seeks to empower them.

Sandy LoMonico, an ACLU-CT criminal justice organizer, pointed out that we are all impacted by the criminal justice system. She repeatedly emphasized that taxpayers should be concerned about the astronomical costs of mass incarceration.

A 2017 Prison Policy Initiative report, “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration,” finds it costs federal and state governments and American families $182 billion per year, yet this spending does little to improve public safety or reduce crime. And hardly any of this money goes toward rehabilitation.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. On any given day, there are 2.2 million people in prison. And more than 70 million are living with a criminal record. In Connecticut, as of April, there were 13,656 people incarcerated, at an annual cost of around $50,000 per prisoner.

Gov. Dannel Malloy has made Connecticut a leader in criminal justice reform: closing prisons, repealing the death penalty, decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, instituting the second chance initiative with emphasis on treatment, education, and job training.

Where do today’s gubernatorial candidates stand? I asked for their comments.

Democrat Ned Lamont, who lives in Greenwich:

“I’m proud that Connecticut has led the nation on criminal justice reform. As governor, I would continue smart-on-crime reforms that have driven down costs by tens of millions of dollars and reduced crime to some of the lowest levels in decades while putting fewer people behind bars. We continue to improve at offering a meaningful second chance to people who have served their time, but there’s more to do. I would put an even greater emphasis on successful re-entry programs so that formerly incarcerated people can reach their full potential and contribute to our society and our economy.”

Republican Bob Stefanowski: No response.

Hear the call to action at the Smart Justice rallies. Keep informed.

Alma Rutgers served in Greenwich town government for 25 years. Her blog is at blog.ctnews.com/rutgers/

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