In 2015, a trip to a German prison organized by the Vera Institute of Justice was an eye-opening experience for Gov. Dannel Malloy and Connecticut Correction Commissioner Scott Semple. Vera, a nonprofit organization based in New York, worked with the state Department of Correction to design a pilot unit for men aged 18 to 25 at the maximum-security Cheshire Correctional Institution. The program is called T.R.U.E (Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding, Elevating) and, as Vera has reported, it draws on the findings of neuroscience. As Semple said at the state’s “Reimagining Justice” conference at the prison last week, “Scientists have learned that it takes a human brain about 25 years to fully develop. To some degree, we consider the teen brain still on training wheels.” The program therefore aims to develop inmates as people with job and social skills through education, work assignments, family engagement, and the mentorship of older inmates.
Semple said that disciplinary issues inside the new unit are virtually nonexistent. A similar unit is set to open this summer at the women’s prison in Niantic. State officials said the program could become a national model, and if so, it will be a lasting achievement of the Malloy administration. The governor has championed criminal justice reform, a course of action that takes political courage in a nation that accounts for 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people. Many of the prisoners are drug offenders, and Malloy’s Second Chance program, enacted in 2015, has sought to ensure that nonviolent offenders are reintegrated into society by emphasizing treatment for minor nonviolent drug crimes.
The “reintegration” aspect, however, makes it an easy target of partisan attacks, as we have seen with Sen. Heather Somers’ announcement of a press conference Tuesday regarding the December killings of three members of the Lindquist family, former Westerly residents, in Griswold. Somers, R-Groton, and Rep. Kevin Skulczyck, R-Griswold, said they wanted a review of Second Chance, along with probation and parole decisions, and Skulczyck — a Department of Correction retiree — accused Malloy of having “really weakened the supervision process.” Many crimes are associated with drugs, and the Griswold home invasion was all the more horrifying because, at the time of the murders, the main suspect had been out of prison for only three months after serving 10 years for violent crimes he had committed when he was 16. Obviously the system failed with him, but that is no indictment of programs that try to turn young people’s lives around.