By Tom Breen. Reprinted from New Haven Independent, Nov. 23, 2018.
Undoing mass incarceration isn’t just about providing ex-offenders a second chance to reintegrate into society after release.
It’s also about giving our whole society a second chance to rethink the conditions and policies that lead to mass incarceration in the first place.
That argument was made by longtime criminal justice reform advocates and academics Andrew Clark and Bill Dyson on the most recent episode of WNHH’s “Criminal Justice Insider with Babz Rawls-Ivy and Jeff Grant.”
Clark is the director of the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy (IMRP), an independent think tank based out of Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) that advocates for criminal justice reform through public policy research, analysis, and development.
Dyson served 32 years as a New Haven state representative and is currently a political science professor at CCSU and the chair of the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Advisory Board.
Throughout the episode, Clark and Dyson applauded outgoing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” initiatives that helped close state prisons and reduce state prison populations by making drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony, scrapping harsher punishments for offenders in “drug-free zones,” and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
They said the push for criminal justice reform in this state now needs to focus less on assessing, punishing, and forgiving individual behavior, and more on taking a holistic look at the deeply ingrained racial prejudices and systemic inequalities that lead to crime in the first place.
“I wish for once we would not put that on the individual,” Clark said. “We need a second chance as a society to make things right. We’re all in this together. We all created this. If you put it on the individual, then you’re saying one out of three black males was born a criminal? What did we do to create this? And what do we have to do to unwind this?”
Clark said that his think tank works every today towards analyzing data and crafting and promoting state laws that with the goal of inspiring and sustaining a “just, equitable, and inclusive Connecticut.”
IMRP staffs the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, an independent 23-person state body created in 2011 that reviews state sentencing laws and makes recommendations to the governor. The academic group also staffs the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity, another independent state body that was created by the state legislature in 2000 with the goal of “eliminating racial and ethnic disparity in the criminal justice system.”
And through the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project (CTRP3), IMRP also helps implement the state’s 1999 anti-racial profiling law, the Alvin W. Penn Racial Profiling Prohibition Act, which prohibits police officers from stopping, detaining, or searching motorists when the reason for the action is motivated solely by the individual’s race, color, ethnicity, age, gender or sexual orientation.
“A lot of the times the justice system is focused on the individual without a real understanding of the ripple effects,” Clark said.
What that means to him is that society needs to take a step back and better understand how the criminal justice system built by state governments and the federal government over the past 30 years punishes people more because of racial prejudice and economic inequality than because of dangerous individual behavior.
He first visited a prison eight years ago, when he went to the Cheshire Correctional Institution to sit in on the Wesley Prison Education Program. A Wesleyan University English professor was teaching a course on Ancient Greek tragedy. He remembered the experience and knowledge and heart and understanding that the incarcerated students brought to the course, and remembered asking himself: “It had to be not that we give them this opportunity? It couldn’t have happened before [they wound up in prison]? These are bright guys.”
Dyson agreed, saying that he first got involved in criminal justice reform efforts when his son was given a 117-month sentence.
“It’s devastating families,” he said about the criminal justice system as it currently exists. “It just wreaks havoc. It didn’t take much to go to the next step and come to the realization that, there are a bunch of families impacted by the justice system in a way that does more damage than the good they might hope to get from it.”
Dyson said he hopes to see the incoming Lamont administration appoint more people like outgoing state Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner Scott Semple. Semple worked his way up to commissioner from starting out as a correctional officer and knows well the state criminal justice system and its disproportionate impact on racial minorities, Dyson said.
He and Clark said that the one positive side effect of so many people having experienced the criminal justice system over the past three decades is that there are now plenty of people to mobilize in efforts to advocate for reforms.
“People have come out now who refuse to be marginalized any longer,” Dyson said.
“I’m hopeful about people,” he continued. “I just don’t think that people are genuinely evil.”