By SUSAN HAIGH, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to give nonviolent criminal offenders more opportunities to reintegrate into society received mostly positive reviews Friday from state legislators, who are being asked to reclassify drug possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
But Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane urged lawmakers to think twice about making such a change, suggesting the General Assembly instead focus on improving programs for first-time drug offenders as a way to ultimately reduce the number of people who later commit more crimes and get caught up in the court system.
“We’ve got to step back and look at the system in context,” Kane told the Judiciary Committee, which held a public hearing Friday on Malloy’s “second chance society” legislation.
While some committee members expressed concerns with the bill, it appeared bipartisan support is growing for the idea of shifting state resources to reducing violent crime and helping non-violent offenders reintegrate into society. Several key Republicans, including GOP Senate leader Leonard Fasano, said they agree with providing more drug treatment to non-violent drug offenders rather than putting them behind bars.
“We’re tough on crime but we’re smart on crime,” said Sen. John Kissel, the committee’s highest-ranking Republican.
“And we believe in redemption and well over 90 percent of the folks, if you give them the tools, they can turn their lives around.”
The Democratic governor’s proposal would reclassify the possession of all drugs _ whether it’s marijuana or heroin _ as a misdemeanor. The lower penalty would apply to repeat arrests. Current laws concerning possession of drugs with the intent to sell would remain intact. Malloy’s bill also would eliminate mandatory sentences for drug possession while continuing to give judges the discretion to impose sentences based on circumstances of a case.
Karen Buffkin, Malloy’s legal counsel, said treating crimes such as simple drug possession as a felony have led to “swollen prisons, as well as broken families and communities.”
Malloy’s administration said 483 people as of Thursday were locked up for possession of narcotics. But Kane questioned that figure, saying it’s very rare for someone to be in prison for only the possession of narcotics. He said it’s more likely those inmates had a more serious, original charge that was reduced to possession.
Kane said people who commit crimes, including possession of illegal drugs, are given multiple chances to redeem themselves through the state’s various diversionary programs. He said the legislature should look more closely at why those programs apparently aren’t working for many people instead of changing the classification of crimes. He said there are many people who offend over and over again, even after participating in the programs.
“We see them coming back again and we know who they are when we see their names on the docket,” he told lawmakers.
Malloy’s proposal also would create an expedited parole review to reduce the backlog of people waiting for their cases to be heard. Buffkin said too often low-risk, non-violent offenders sit in prison longer than intended because the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles cannot hear their cases in a timely manner. She said there’s a large group of people who are eligible for parole after serving 50 percent of their sentenced but don’t have a hearing until they’ve served close to 65 percent of the sentence.
Kane’s office objected to parts of the bill that would give the board the right to grant pardons, without holding a hearing, to people convicted of all nonviolent crimes if the victim does not object. In written testimony, the office said the change would include a number of serious crimes that are not considered violent, such as importing child pornography or voyeurism.
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