Three months after passing some of the nation's most progressive bills on police accountability and sentencing reform, the state of Connecticut is still mired in debate over how much further to go in reforming its criminal justice system.
The challenges emerged graphically yesterday at a panel discussion involving the state's top justice advisor, and representatives of law enforcement and the state legislature.
“If people in the community don't trust the police, everything gets worse,” said Michael Lawlor, Connecticut's Under Secretary for Criminal Justice and Policy, in defense of recently passed legislation aimed at increasing police accountability with body cameras and setting new state standards for investigating officer-involved shootings.
“Victims won't call the police and ask for help,” Lawlor told the panel at Fairfield University. “Witnesses won't cooperate with the police (and) jurors on jury duty won't believe the police.
“And when you get to that point, then the cops are in danger and we're all in danger. If you view the police as an army of occupation, which is what I think people are getting at … there will be a breakdown in public safety.”
Lawlor said that when more data on police interactions with the public (racial profiling and searches) is analyzed, and when video is released showing when those incidents go bad, it will change behavior.
“I think this is actually changing behavior,” he continued. “If people are aware that what they are doing will be videotaped, they are going to be less likely to engage in misconduct.”
But State Sen. Gary Winfield of New Haven argued that a lot more needs to be done.
“I don't think that the body cameras are a panacea and (they are) going to get rid of everything,” Winfield said at the session, which was part of a conference organized by The Connecticut Mirror, called “Small State, Big Debate: Race”
“If you are doing things that lead to the death of our citizens, maybe you shouldn't be in that job any longer.”
Connecticut's movement for change began after unarmed black men were killed by police in Ferguson, Mo. and North Charleston, S.C.. Like many states, it looked at itself in the mirror to see what it could do to reform its own criminal justice law.
It wasn't easy. The state's legislators and governor bickered about just what needed changing and how much was needed—but eventually Connecticut passed major changes.
Legislators fiercely debated the minutiae of the laws before finally passing two bipartisan bills in June.
In addition to the legislation on law enforcement, Connecticut lawmakers took up what Gov. Daniel Malloy called his “Second Chance Society” initiative, which lowered penalties for drug possession and streamlined the parole and pardon process.
The new laws are expected to have a real impact: By changing sentencing guidelines for drug possession, the prison population is estimated to decrease by more than 1,000 inmates in fiscal year 2016, with millions in cost savings for the state.
That law is part of Connecticut's effort to transform its prison system with more of a focus on reentry.
“They call it the Department of Correction for a reason, right?” said Lawlor. “The goal is to do stuff with people while you have them to make it less likely they offend when they get out of the door.
“I think for a long time, we had the opposite approach.”
Earlier this year, the state created a reentry center for men, which offers community college courses, substance abuse treatment, mental health services and employment services for male prisoners.
A center for women is coming soon, Lawlor said.
“Retooling this to turn it into what is truly a Department of Correction, is a Herculean challenge,” Lawlor said.
Dr. James Nardozzi, assistant chief of the Bridgeport Police Department, added that another way to reduce the prison population is to better serve the mentally ill.
“There are a lot of people in this state who do not need to be arrested—they need services,” Nardozzi said, turning to Winfield. “I hope Senator that in the next legislative session, maybe you and your colleagues can help us do something with this.”
Adam Wisnieski is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.