Malloy, Semple talk criminal justice at regional conference

Glenn E. Martin’s life story might have been much different were it not for a correctional counselor he encountered at age 22.

A month after a judge called Martin incorrigible and sentenced him to six years, the counselor placed a hand on his shoulder and offered simple advice: “You should go to college.”

Martin, taken aback, ultimately listened to the counselor’s advice. He went on to found JustLeadershipUSA, which is working to cut the country’s correctional population in half by 2030.

Still, the New York City native said he could have benefitted from earlier intervention.

“I didn’t learn how to pull a gun until someone pulled a gun on me,” he said. “I wish there was a moment where the community embraced me and helped me deal with that trauma. It’s not an excuse, but that trauma goes somewhere, it calcifies. And sometimes it presents itself as offending behavior.”

Martin was one of four panelists, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who on Monday discussed criminal justice at the Council of State Governments’ Eastern Regional Conference at Mohegan Sun.

The conversation focused heavily on what the state of Connecticut has accomplished, but also touched on ways it and other states can move forward. In Connecticut, the prison population has dropped from about 20,000 to just more than 14,000 in 10 years. Over the past four years, the state also has seen larger drops in serious crime than any other state in the country.

Malloy and state Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple credit various programs the state has introduced for those outcomes. There’s a unit that focuses on the needs of DUI offenders and another specifically for veterans. A new job center is operating at the state’s only prison for women. And, in Cheshire, “lifers” are mentoring youthful offenders with the hopes the latter will find success when they're released.

Now the pair are pushing legislators to agree to treat 18-, 19- and 20-year-old offenders differently from adults. Nueroscience, Semple said, shows the age group is more compulsive, more easily manipulated and more violent. A person who is young during a first jail stint, Malloy added, is more likely to reoffend than someone who’s not jailed until later in life.

Calling the “tough on crime” model “easier to sell,” Malloy pointed out that 95 percent of the people Connecticut sends to prison will end up back in the public one day.

“So why wouldn’t we try to do a better job while people are incarcerated?” he asked. “And why wouldn’t we try to examine ways to prevent incarceration?”

Malloy and Semple see eye to eye, especially in that they believe specialized units are the key to better outcomes.

Semple still remembers something Malloy said when they first met.

“He said something very interesting to me, that we were building prisons when we should have been building schools,” Semple explained. “I felt it was time to look at other options and alternatives” to mass incarceration.

Oddly enough, Malloy and Semple found inspiration in Berlin, Germany. Its overall population closely resembles Connecticut’s. Its prison population, at close to 4,000, is a different story.

There, Malloy said, prisoners make their own meals in a kitchen with forks, knives and spoons. Twenty years is considered a lengthy sentence. After a certain period, inmates are allowed visitations with their loved ones. Offenders are just as likely to come across a social worker, psychiatrist or psychologist as they are a prison guard.

The result? Germany's recidivism rate is about half the United States'.

Going forward, Malloy and Semple hope to keep making changes. Martin and Jeff Dion, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, offered suggestions for what not only Connecticut, but also other states and provinces represented in the audience could do next.

Dion, shocked upon learning Martin owed $93,000 in fines, fees and child support when he was released, said states shouldn’t finance their entire correctional systems “on the backs of offenders.” But with every option considered, Dion said, officials should ask, “How does this impact victims?”

Martin, who called Connecticut’s system “unique,” said he would like to see more collaboration with the labor market.

“You need to meet employers where they are,” he said, pointing out that some are more willing than others to hire people with criminal records.

Malloy, who has set foot in Connecticut correctional institutions more than 21 times, urged mayors and governors alike to visit prisons whenever they have the chance.

“We’ll build a better system if more people have that experience,” he said. “We can have smaller prison populations and lower crime at the same time. And if someone tells you you can’t, tell them about Connecticut.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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