News that 57 Connecticut state troopers and hundreds of Department of Corrections workers received lay-off notices this month compels the following question: Are we missing an opportunity? Rather than hand-wringing that the loss of these public safety employees will somehow make the streets less safe, perhaps we ought to wonder about the value each added of increment of law-enforcement.
Don’t get me wrong. I see the pain everywhere I go. Morale in the courthouses is at an all-time low. The dockets in the G.A. courts, never quick to move, are now near standstill. It takes half a day to do an hour’s work. Folks are bitter and scared. No one wants to be told they will be required to do more with less.
But that’s the life we private-sector types have been living. Firms throughout the state have made economies. Real estate lawyers are now a common site in the criminal courts looking for fees, a move I find astonishing. I would no more try my hand at a real estate closing than I would sit for an audition with the New York Philharmonic.
All that once boomed has now come crashing down around us.
Why doesn’t that include the penal code, too, that high-flying barometer of social anxiety, that grab-bag of prohibitions, restrictions and regulations that forever grows but almost never shrinks? I am not at all sure just how many ways a Connecticut resident can break the law and find himself or herself looking at a potential jail cell. Do we really need all these laws?
While it was encouraging to see possession of small amounts of marijuana decriminalized in the last session of the General Assembly, the move was most notable for its rarity. Each year, lawmakers add to the penal code. Crimes are almost never deleted from the books. Yet no one I know is prepared to say that the creation of a vast regulatory state has improved the quality of life. Instead, we’re saddled with clogged dockets in the courts and a prison population we cannot afford to feed and house.
Why not take the opportunity presented by this economic crisis to clean up the penal code? How many of these laws are really necessary to promote public safety? Perhaps we need legislation to require that all crimes below the level of a Class A felony be automatically expunged from the books after five years unless explicitly renewed, after public hearings and comments. Why not a report to law makers on the cost of enforcing each law? I’ll bet if legislators saw just how much penal detritus clogs the courts, things might change. Do we really need to prosecute people for interfering with a police officer? Maybe we’ve given police officers a little too much power and discretion.
We may get some winnowing of how the penal code is applied as a result of simple attrition. Twenty percent of the staff at the state’s attorney’s offices throughout the state are slated for layoffs. This will include many veteran prosecutors. Fewer hands at the battle stations might force prosecutors to make cost-benefit decisions they now routinely avoid. Is jail time really necessary for disposition of a low-level offense?
Very few crimes are a result of the sort of flat-out evil that requires imprisonment. Many are acts involving a momentary lapse in judge. Many, too, are crimes reflecting a lack of social integration and a lack of realistic economic opportunity. If we spent less time and money locking up those who are falling between the cracks, and more time trying to redeem the promise of equality opportunity for all, we might need fewer prisons. Incarceration isn’t supposed to result in a plantation for our surplus population.
My heart goes out to those who stand on the precipice of economic woe. But my head says embrace the chaos. The boom times are over. It’s time to get real about what matters. Pruning needless criminal laws is a worthy exercise.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.