Why Governor Dannel Malloy Wants Connecticut to be a “Second Chance Society”

July 18, 2017
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by Anjali Tsui Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Dannel Malloy says he inherited a prison system that no one today would choose to build from scratch.

As governor of Connecticut, Dannel Malloy has tried to create a more forgiving criminal justice system. During his six years in office, Malloy has spearheaded efforts to reduce the prison population in his state and provide better support for inmates as they re-enter society.

The centerpiece of that effort is Malloy’s “Second Chance Society.” Since becoming law two years ago, the initiative has helped to reduce penalties for drug possession and make it easier for those in prison for non-violent crimes to be given parole.

Malloy, a Democrat, began his career in the 1980s as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, New York. That experience, he says, opened his eyes to the racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system.

“I wish we hadn’t inherited this system,” says Malloy. “We would not create this system again. No one would sit around in a room and say that we should have a system that is as punitive and as hopeless about the ability of people to turn themselves around.”

In the last few years, Connecticut has granted parole to more of its prisoners than ever before. Almost 5,000 people are currently supervised by parole. However, around one in three parolees will end up violating the terms of their release, according to the Connecticut Department of Correction. Malloy sat down with FRONTLINE to discuss his reform efforts and the importance of understanding the link between crime, mental health and addiction.

This is the transcript of an interview conducted by filmmaker Matt O’Neill on May 11, 2017 for the FRONTLINE documentary Life on Parole, part of a collaboration with The New York Times. It has been edited for clarity and length.

What are you doing differently in Connecticut?

Well, we’ve been working very actively to reimagine our criminal justice system and, quite frankly, to make it fairer and, hopefully, allow a whole bunch of folks to avoid having a criminal record because they do something stupid.

So we’re trying to redesign it so that we’re supportive. We certainly understand we have to punish people from time to time. That’s not a problem. But I think we as a society move too greatly in the direction of punishment without really understanding that punishment is permanent.

You give somebody a record, you’re changing their life. You give somebody a record, change their life and don’t give them support when they come out, you’re creating a problem for yourself and for them.

For the most part, good things don’t happen when you enter our criminal justice system. I think the more we avoid that, the more we push that off, particularly in a young person’s life, the better the outcomes in the long run.

What can the system do? We followed 10 inmates for more than a year and saw them face problems that in more than 50 percent of their cases were insurmountable.

We’re evolving. We’re making change. Until relatively recently, we were doing almost nothing to prepare people to leave prison and go back to society.

My wife, who mentors a woman who was incarcerated for a long period of time, has had conversations with that woman who was totally unprepared to think about things like everyone having a cell phone or what it is to ride on a bus. Once a year, she went on a bus to see a doctor, and that was in shackles.

We’ve got to spend time getting people ready to re-enter society. And we’re doing that. At Cybulski [Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution], we have three different centers. At the women’s prison, we have a center. We’re asking DUI folks to understand why they’re there — they’re not there for the first time; they’re there for the second or third time—and examine those behaviors and make sure they have a support system to keep themselves away from liquor or drugs when they’re driving. We’re reintroducing people to their families who have not seen their families or been able to touch their family member in a long period of time.

So we’re making those kinds of changes. I’d like to make them faster, but the system has to evolve, and you have to bring more of the corrections folks into it. I think the connections on jobs are very important, as well as access to transportation to get to a job. I think we’re figuring that out pretty well.

We’re making very big change in a very short period of time. We’re evolving quickly as we drive down the prison population rapidly, but we also see recidivism dropping. And, quite frankly, we’re watching crime drop very dramatically as well.

This effort has been central to your administration. What’s the imperative for you? Moral? Financial? Why are you focused on this?

Well, I think having been a prosecutor at a relatively young age in New York and seeing both the strengths and the great weaknesses of the system, and seeing the disparity based on race, color of one’s skin, or whether that person’s well educated, or whether that person is poor or not, drives me to say, “We need a fairer system.” And that fairer system has to be driven on the concept that we should avoid mistakes and we should help other people avoid mistakes, and we should be as forgiving of other people’s mistakes as we are of our own, and, if we build a system around those basic concepts, that we should stop cutting off our nose to spite our face; that giving someone an “advanced degree in criminal behavior”—and that’s generally what you get in prison — is not a particularly smart idea if we can avoid that.

I have seen judges sentence people to jail because they’re frustrated with them. And I understand that frustration. You’ve got a person, a young person, who appears before you three times in a six- or seven-month period, or even a one- or two-year period of time, you get frustrated, and you say: “OK, I’ve had enough of you. You’re going to jail.”

That’s not necessarily the best way to treat that. Understand that a lot of crime is caused by mental illness, including drug or alcohol dependency. It’s caused by depression, which is a form of mental health. Depression and anxiety is a toxic mix for folks who then act out. We need to understand human behavior, development of the mind, particularly in young people — or let me put it another way: the lack of development in a young person’s brain with respect to maturity, being a factor in decision making.

If we redesign our system to take all of those things into account, we’ll stop giving those  “advanced degrees in criminal behavior,” the ones that you get while you’re in jail, and we’ll have better luck.

“Good things don’t happen when you enter our criminal justice system.”

What is the biggest challenge?

Society has a perception of people who have been incarcerated that they can’t possibly have changed their behaviors; they can’t possibly have overcome the difficulties in their lives that caused them to be criminals. They don’t believe somebody grows out of depression or anxiety — and that does happen, by the way, or people learn the skills necessary to get through that.

They’ll look at their own children and say, “Hey, my kid made mistakes, but he’s great now.” But they won’t say, “Your kid made mistakes, and he’s great now.” And that’s the problem. It’s a societal problem.

When my executive producer watched our first cut of the film, she sort of was confounded and said: “I don’t understand. Are we making a film about re-entry, or are you making a film about addiction?”

Listen, addiction and mental illness — you’ve got to understand that depression and anxiety are discernable mental conditions. The number of people in prison with learning disabilities — and I grew up with profound learning disabilities. I suppose that that’s another reason I’m committed to this issue.

You know, when I was born, I was spastic as an infant, which probably means that there was some amount of brain damage done in the birthing process. I’m dyslexic. I was thought to be mentally retarded as late as the fourth grade. I couldn’t catch a ball or hold a pencil.

I go to prison. I meet a lot of “me’s.” You know, they may not have white skin. They may have black skin or brown skin, but there are a lot of “me’s.” There are a lot of kids there, a lot of young people and people who are no longer young, who are there because they could not compete academically or in other ways that society tests people.

That in and of itself can be a contributing factor to depression, to drug use, to self-medication. I don’t think we have a broad enough understanding of that in our society. We’ll all forgive our loved ones for their maladies. It’s just, we’re not as likely to forgive others.

What’s the tool that you wish you had, that you don’t?

Well, I wish we hadn’t inherited this system, right? We would not create this system again. No one would sit around in a room and say that we should have a system that is as punitive and as hopeless about the ability of people to turn themselves around.

One of the most unexpected things a parole officer said to me was that she tries to think of her charges as victims.

I’m really happy you said that. I think of some of them as our mistakes.

In what sense?

That we sent that person to jail the first time because we were frustrated with him because they were acting like an 18- or a 19- or a 20-year-old. It’s not a good reason to send somebody to jail.

A real crime, I’m not debating. You know, one of the things you have to be as a parent is patient and pray for the passing of time and maturity. Maybe as a society we need to be a little more patient and pray for the passing of time and maturity.

When we can’t turn our head and understand that somebody has to be incarcerated, maybe we could build a more supportive system that is designed to bring about a better result, not necessarily for your six-time convicted person, but for your one-, two- or three-time convicted person.

The “trip wire” aspect of parole? That’s one of the things I’ve seen change in Connecticut, but it’s still a problem.

The trip wire, as you refer to it, what we’ve done is spent a lot of time at [the Connecticut Board of] Pardons and Paroles, educating the folks who are making those decisions and giving them a system to help them make those judgments and, quite frankly, looking at what happens.

Let’s say somebody, they violate parole. They do something stupid. They’re not supposed to be drinking, or they’re not supposed to be on drugs, and they’re caught drinking or on drugs. How do we incentivize them to not do that? How do we help them learn from that experience? I think if we can introduce those concepts and those ideas into that system, and part of that is making that system smaller so you can make those more personal decisions, I think that’s a better way to look at it. So we’re urging Pardons and Parole [and] hearing officers to look at all sides.

“We would not create this system again. No one would sit around in a room and say that we should have a system that is as punitive and as hopeless about the ability of people to turn themselves around.”

What is the cost to incarcerate?

We use about $168 to represent the real cost of corrections, so the corrections officers, the meal, the facility, a use charge. I don’t think we’re dividing the cost of building those facilities or rebuilding those facilities. But that’s kind of what it costs you to stay at a hotel. And that’s a cost that the person is not paying who’s staying there. It’s a cost that the community is paying. And if you have 20,000 people in jail when you really should only have 12,000 people in jail, that’s a lot of extra people you’re paying that $168 a day for.

I think about that a lot, and I think about how much better those dollars could be spent in education programs for kids or, quite frankly, job programs for people coming out of jail. And, quite frankly, under difficult economic circumstances, I need to save those dollars.

But I wouldn’t sacrifice people’s safety for it. I actually think the two things work hand in hand. Having fewer people in jail and those we send to jail for shorter time, once they can prove that they’re worth that additional help and chance, that makes us safer. Somebody with a job is a lot safer than somebody without a job.

What is it like to push for reform while dealing with the narratives that rise up to the top of the press — Connecticut being the home of the most horrific …  

… One of the most horrific, sure. Some of the most horrific. Listen, the Newtown shooting, the Petit murders, were very difficult circumstances to deal with. But 90 to 95 percent of the people come out of jail one way or the other. We really need to concentrate on changing their lives so that they’re less likely to return to jail.

Every crime that we can prevent means there’s fewer victims. One of the great things about Connecticut right now is we have a 50-year low in crime. Violent crime has fallen faster in Connecticut over the last three years than any other state in the nation, by a third.

I’m not talking about one or two percentage points. I’m talking about 33 percentage points. That’s pretty significant. We must be doing something right.

When you’re interfacing with other governors, what do you say to them? Someone who’s struggling to do something similar in their state?

Well, there’s an interesting thing about criminal justice reform. Some Republican governors got involved because they saw the cost savings, and some Democratic governors ignored the issue because they didn’t want to be called soft on crime.

If I’ve done anything, and the story of Connecticut has done anything, hopefully it’s to demonstrate to other Republicans who have shied away from it and Democrats that are afraid to be called soft on crime that this is actually the right strategy to fight crime; that lowering recidivism, avoiding incarceration to begin with and doing a better job while someone is incarcerated, and changing their behaviors and, quite frankly, diagnosing their mental illness, is a way to make society safer, not unsafe, particularly when you put it in the back of your mind that almost everybody comes home, sooner or later. Most people are going to be home in five years, so how are we spending that time? And can we spend at least a portion of it in a way that makes it less likely that person’s going to come back for another year or 10 years or five years, or whatever the number of years are?

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