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State’s prison population lowest in two decades

By KEN DIXON

Connecticut Post

Connecticut’s prison population has fallen to 14,000 inmates — the lowest in 23 years.

Advancements in policing and prosecutions, combined with a years-long effort to divert teenagers and substance abusers from the general prison population, resulted in such sharp decreases in crime, the state is closing the 700-bed medium-security prison in Enfield.

In particular, a drop in prison inmates under 30 years of age will mean an even-lower prison census in coming years, at a savings of tens of millions of dollars for taxpayers.

Over the last 10 years, prison admissions have fallen 38 percent.

While civil libertarians warn the inmate population retains a troublesome racial disparity, Connecticut has become a national model in reducing crime and the need for prison cells.

“I never would have guessed that would have happened, politically, back 10 years ago,” said David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “I’ve seen some real big shifts in the mind set on criminal justice in Connecticut. Increasingly, over the last four or five years, the Legislature and public, to a greater extent, have come away from being ‘tough on crime,’ to being smart on crime.”

McGuire credits Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Second Chance Society measure raising the age that teens are considered adults to 18, to making drug possession misdemeanors instead of mandatory felonies. The measure was approved by the General Assembly.

“He’s drastically changed the school-to-prison pipeline while making the state safer, with a more-manageable Department of Correction budget,” McGuire said.

The closure of the Enfield Correctional Institution, a dormitory-style building that opened in 1962 as a minimum-security prison, will save the state about $6.5 million a year in operating costs. Other closures dating back to 2010 are saving taxpayers $42.6 million a year.

“We’ve been able to create efficiencies by closing outdated facilities and reallocating these resources toward efforts that will further enhance public-safety initiatives and keep our neighborhoods even safer,” Malloy said. “Violent, high-risk inmates are serving more of their original sentences than ever before. We are making real progress and in the process, improving lives and bettering our communities.”

When Malloy announced the prison closure Tuesday, the inmate population stood at 14,103, but by Friday it fell another 100 inmates. A year ago there were nearly 15,000 inmates.

The record high was 19,894 inmates in 2008.

In January 2010, the age that teens were considered adults was raised to 17. Two years later, it rose to 18. Malloy has failed in efforts to persuade lawmakers to raise the age even higher.

“When you couple the forecast on population counts with the fiscal challenges facing the state of Connecticut, this closure is a responsible and appropriate decision,” said Scott Semple, commissioner of the state Department of Correction. “As we navigate through this process, the safety and security of all our institutions will remain a top priority — one which will not be compromised.”

Semple said the 190 DOC employees at Enfield CI will be redeployed throughout the agency. In the late-1990s, the DOC staff totaled 7,300, which is now down to about 5,200.

The transfer of inmates to other facilities has already begun, while a new class of 100 prison guards is scheduled to soon begin training.

Cops are doing a better job of community policing, said Michael P. Lawlor, a former prosecutor and state representative who is undersecretary for criminal justice in Malloy’s Office of Policy and Management.

Lawlor said there’s also better technology, including video surveillance and DNA detection, and police and prosecutors are focusing on high-risk offenders, while diverting low-risk offenders to mental health and substance-abuse programs.

“They’ve gotten really good at behavioral modifications,” said Lawlor, stressing that since the state raised the age that juveniles are treated as adults in the legal system, fewer young people are being incarcerated. Lawlor said that nearly the entire inmate census reduction has been in the under-30 category. “Those used to be the largest portion of the population and now it’s the lowest and dropping.”

State Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, vice chairman of the General Assembly’s law-writing Judiciary Committee, agreed there has been a series of initiatives in recent years that have led to the reduction in crime and decline in prison populations.

“I think it’s no secret that we’ve done some hard work over the last couple years of when to incarcerate and not, charging misdemeanors instead of felonies; working to steer people addicted to drugs to services and treatment rather than jail making a huge difference in the census,” Stafstrom said. “Recidivism and violent crime has fallen cross the state. Still, there are illegal guns in the streets, many coming from outside our borders. But we’re getting to a point where we’re saving taxpayers significant dollars and improving public safety.”

The ACLU-CT’s McGuire said the next challenge for reformers is to address one of the nation’s worst racial disparities, in Connecticut prisons.

“We have to become more data-driven,” he said. “The way to do that is policing and prosecution. The reality is, there is clearly bias in policing in Connecticut. Prisons look nothing like the population of Connecticut.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

 

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