Sentencing Reform Overdue in Connecticut

Gov. Dannel Malloy is calling for reform of some of the state's draconian sentencing laws, proposing that mere drug possession be a misdemeanor, and calling for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. That's all well and good, as a start.

Here's where we should end up. More importantly, here is why we should end up where I propose that we go.

Prisons have become a permanent part of our society, a symbol, really, of our failure to redeem the promise of opportunity for all. There have not always been prisons, and the rage to incarcerate is a form of secular puritanism: no one can really count the number of state and federal offenses than can land you in a box. Why prisons?

In part, we penalize deviance, departures from norms. But what causes deviance? As many as one-third of the folks currently in prison are there due to mental illness. In other words, we imprison the ill, reasoning, apparently, that society needs protection from the ill. We isolate rather than treat. Somewhere, somehow, we've decided that is what justice requires.

Decades ago, we committed to deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, somehow failing to notice we've re-institutionalized many of the same folks.

We imprison others for choices they've made. Many of those choices result in non-violent behavior. Those convicted are locked up to punish them, to deter others, and to teach the imprisoned the error of their ways.

Some we imprison because they have hurt others in grievous ways. A young man kills in a fit of impulsive anger, and his life may very well be spent behind bars, decade upon decade, ending only in death. We call this social suffocation justice.

Almost every act of imprisonment is at root a confession of failure as a society: The prisoner has failed to adhere to norms we expect all are capable of honoring. The penal system is built on the premise that the prisoner could have done otherwise. He deserves his imprisonment as a consequence of the choices he has made. In the hoary abstraction of the prosecution: we imprison folks to hold them accountable.

Perhaps we need to believe that it's all a matter of choice. I have my doubts.

But I don't doubt for a moment that the penal system is a caricature of justice, a sort of corporeal version of Dante's vision of purgatory. We imprison far too many folks, for far too many things, for far too long. The result is the creation of a permanent underclass, outcasts within our midst, a nation living apart.

I'd like to see systematic revision of the penal code. We should start by ratcheting back sentences: The presumptive maximum sentence for any offense ought to be a decade, with departures from this threshold only for good cause. Yes, there are folks too dangerous to be let loose in society, but I doubt many of the young men routinely sentenced to terms of 50, 60 or more years are among them.

Let juries make sentencing decisions. Our schizophrenic criminal justice system makes a mockery of the community. Juries simply find facts; judges mete out consequences, with their own hands cuffed by statutory mandatory minimum sentences. No one person, or group of people, ever makes a principled decision on whether the punishment actually fits the crime. We're sleepwalking in the courts.

A year in prison is a long time. A defendant is removed from the rhythm of his life, the life of his family, the life of the community. That's sentence enough for most offenses. Longer sentences destroy citizens and those who depend on them.

Once a prisoner is released, he has paid the debt we say he owed. We ought to eliminate the collateral consequences of a conviction by prohibiting employers from deciding whether to hire or not because an applicant is a felon.

What's I'm proposing is that we look at imprisonment as a social failure rather than a moral failing. A man goes to prison? Why did we let that happen? We're wasting a life.

I applaud Malloy's foray into reform. But don't tiptoe, governor. Take a bold leap. End the rage to incarcerate.




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