Lamont backs second chances for ex-offenders

Hamden — While Gov. Ned Lamont has made efforts to distinguish himself from his predecessor, he vowed Monday to continue one of the signature policies of the Malloy administration: second chances.

During a wide-ranging discussion at Quinnipiac University, Lamont heard from former inmates and key players in the criminal justice community about what would help those leaving prison have success on the outside.

One idea was as simple as providing identification cards to inmates as they re-enter the community, a proposal that was included in Lamont's $43 billion, two-year budget plan. An ID card is not only crucial for securing employment and housing, but "it legitimizes that person," said Louis L. Reed of Bridgeport, a former federal inmate.

Lamont spoke of the impact a recent visit to the Cheshire Correctional Institution, his first time in a prison, had on him.

They welcomed him to their "gated community," which Lamont, who acknowledged he's led a privileged life, said he thought was ironic.

What struck him were the mentors in the prison. Those with long sentences for major crimes helping the younger offenders, many of whom are around the same age as his 25-year-old son, Teddy.

"You look in their eyes, and they want that second chance. They've got to earn that second chance. I think you'll find the recidivism is way down when you give people just a little more opportunity," Lamont said.

New Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook, whom Lamont picked for his prison reform work in Utah, said the state needs to help establish mentors in the community who can "help our folks stay on track."

"The next step is in our community. ... One of the challenges we're seeing, we're not succeeding on the outside, in the community," he said.

Cook said ensuring inmates have a place to live, other than a halfway house, when they get out is also key to reintegration, a point others emphasized as well. He also raised the idea of removing "Department of Correction" from certificates for various training programs that inmates can participate in while incarcerated, explaining there's a stigma attached.

State Rep. Brandon McGee, a Democrat representing Windsor and Hartford, who helped organize Monday's discussion, has introduced a bill, House Bill 5712, that would automatically seal a person's criminal record for any misdemeanor offense. For certain felony offenses, a person's record would be sealed for seven years after conviction of a crime. The intent is to prevent discrimination against former offenders when looking for housing and employment, for example.

"A lot of people on probation and parole are still looking for housing," McGee said.

Emmanuel Ford of New Haven, a former inmate, said when inmates are released from prison, especially if they served a lengthy sentence, they don't have any credit history, which can also put them at a disadvantage for securing housing.

Brent Peterkin, the statewide coordinator for Project Longevity, an initiative that brings together the community and law enforcement to reduce violence in Connecticut's major cities, encouraged Lamont to reach out to the business community to encourage them to give ex-offenders a second chance.

"We hear from employers all the time that they're willing to give second chances, but it oftentimes seems that those opportunities are scarce," Peterkin said.

Especially when looking at areas of growth in the state such as advance manufacturing, there should be "opportunities for individuals who've been impacted by the criminal justice system to prove their worth," he said.

CNN commentator Van Jones said to Lamont that ex-offenders "who get educated and come home job-ready and transformed, we should be cheering, we should be lining the streets cheering for those kinds of success stories and comeback stories."

Jones has partnered with rappers Meek Mill and Jay-Z, Philadelphia Sixers owner Michael Rubin, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to form The Reform Alliance to lobby for changes to parole and probations laws in the U.S. Mill was supposed to attend the forum, but was unable to because of a scheduling conflict.

While it helps to have celebrities and those with name recognition to draw attention to these kind of stories, they also have to "hear it from leaders like yourself who actually care," Jones said.

j.bergman@theday.com

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