HARTFORD, Conn. — Corrections and judicial officials from across the country gathered in Hartford on Wednesday for a conference on reforming the nation’s criminal justice systems in an effort to address the problem of mass incarceration.
The Reimagining Justice Conference was the brainchild of Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has made the issue of criminal-justice reform a focus of his administration.
“There was a general concept in America that if you paid back society for whatever you did wrong, that you were back in society,” Malloy said. “Somehow we did away with that concept in the United States and I’d like to see us return to it.”
Judges, prison officials, former inmates and others are spending two days discussing issues as diverse as the brains of teen offenders, job training and education in the prisons, bail systems that keep the poor behind bars if they can’t come up with $250, even video chatting services that would allow those behind bars to stay in contact with their families.
A.T. Wall, director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, said implementing needed reforms to treat mental health problems, drug addiction and provide inmates with the skills to succeed outside of prison can be difficult, especially if there is a public perception that the system is not doing enough punishing.
“It’s in everyone’s self-interest that the time people spend in prison be used productively, so they emerge better equipped to function as productive and law abiding citizens,” he said. “I think that’s ultimately our most important goal.”
Connecticut’s prison population has dropped to about 14,500 inmates, down from a high almost 19,900 inmates in 2008.
State officials said at least some of that decline can be attributed to recent reforms such as reclassifying most drug possession crimes as misdemeanors and creating specialized units in the prison system that help those about to be released with job and social skills.
New laws this year will bar judges from setting cash-only bails, set strict standards for setting any bail for misdemeanors.
Those attending the conference heard about programs such as one in Ohio where a trucking company is training inmates to drive tractor-trailers and a programs in Europe that allow those nearing the end of their sentences to return home for visits.
But former inmates such as Ernie Newton, of Bridgeport, who served in the state legislature before serving time in prison for taking bribes and violating campaign finance laws, said more must be done to eliminate the stigma of being an ex-convict.
“We need to pass legislation that can expunge someone’s record once they’ve served their time and proved they can be a productive member of society,” he said.
Malloy said he’s hopeful the programs being discussed will lead to a society where fewer people end up with criminal records and prisoners are more successful after they are released than when they entered the system.
He pointed out that 95 percent of inmates will return to society at some point.
“Why not do some repair work while you’re in the garage,” he said.