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June 5, 2020

Encouraging decarceration news from New England has me thinking about tipping points

I was quite pleased and intrigued to see this morning two notable lengthy recent stories about reduced prison populations in two northeastern states. Both pieces merit reading in full, and here are headlines, links and excerpts, with some broader comments to follow:

"Justice Served?  Vermont Considers Corrections Reform to Shrink Its Prison Population

When lawmakers returned to Montpelier in January, one of their top priorities was to reduce the number of people imprisoned by the State of Vermont. They succeeded — but not the way they expected.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted prosecutors to avoid locking up all but the most serious suspected offenders, and it's led the Department of Corrections to release some inmates who have served their minimum sentences and been deemed low-risk to the community.  As a result, Vermont's prison population has dropped nearly 17 percent since January, from 1,678 to 1,401.

Now, lawmakers are hoping to lock in that progress by returning to the criminal justice reforms they began contemplating in January. "Our numbers are down, so let's really put in the effort to keep those numbers down," said Rep. Alice Emmons (D-Springfield), who chairs the House Corrections and Institutions Committee.

"As CT prison population nears 30-year low, fewer intakes drive declines"

The state’s incarcerated population is on track to drop below 10,000 this month for the first time in nearly 30 years, a milestone accelerated by the global coronavirus pandemic.  Still, the drop in overall prison population — more than 2,000 people, or 16 percent since March 1 — is overwhelmingly the result of fewer prisoners entering the system rather than a sharp rise in releases, a Hearst Connecticut Media analysis shows.

The population of white prisoners declined by 19 percent, while the population of black and Hispanic incarcerated people has fallen by 14 percent, the analysis shows. It’s not clear why that discrepancy happened. Racial and ethnic minorities make up a majority of the overall prison population.

The state Department of Correction has come under pressure to release more inmates nearing the end of their sentences, especially those who are older or medically vulnerable to coronavirus.  And the department has called attention to the declining prison population.

A press release Tuesday claimed significant increases in discretionary releases, and devoted six paragraphs to the release program, including comments from Commissioner Rollin Cook, who said, “The impressive and substantial decrease in our population speaks volumes about the caliber and hard work of our staff, as well as that of our partners in the criminal justice community.”  The department cited a national report showing Connecticut ranked No. 6 among states reducing their prison populations between the end of December, 2019, and early May of this year.

There are remarkable stories and sub-stories in both of these lengthy articles, but the parts I have quoted might provide a sense of why I am thinking about tipping points. I find it remarkable and heartening that a lawmaker in Vermont is quoted as urging the state to keep its (already relatively low) prison population down after the COVID decline.  And it is even more remarkable and heartening that a press release from the Connecticut Department of Correction is bragging about reducing its population more than most other states in the COIVD era.  I sense we have really gotten to the point, at least in some significant quarters, that a rising prison population is viewed as a failure and a reduced population is deemed a success.

A sea-change in attitudes toward imprisonment and prison populations is one part of achieving a tipping point, but so too will be more fundamental structural change.  Part of that structural change may now be happening economically as states are sure to be eager in these new lean budget times to limit expenditures on corrections.  And if serious reforms in policing and punitiveness follows from all the latest calls for racial justice, I really might be ready to start to envision a true new dawn of smarter justice.

June 5, 2020 at 12:46 PM | Permalink

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