Trump, Malloy alike on prison reform
Was it more surprising that President Donald Trump listened to rapper Kanye West’s stream-of-consciousness musings in the Oval Office on Thursday or that the president sounded a little like Gov. Dannel P. Malloy while talking about criminal-justice reform on Fox & Friends?
Before Kanye arrived for lunch, Trump indicated on Fox that he was embracing the FIRST STEP Act, a bill that includes a provision giving federal prisoners credit for positive behavior behind bars — similar to Malloy’s risk-reduction credits in Connecticut.
“There has to be a reform, because it’s very unfair right now,” Trump said. “It’s very unfair to African Americans. It’s very unfair to everybody. And it’s also very costly.”
Malloy, a Democrat whose criminal justice and prison reforms have attracted national attention, was not willing Friday to conclude that Trump is joining a politically diverse reform movement that ranges from the ACLU to an institute funded by conservative businessman Charles Koch.
“The president says a lot of things, and talk is cheap. He’s done absolutely nothing to further the discussion or the effort,” Malloy said in an interview. “Having said that, at least he’s not saying negative things about it.”
Trump originally stood with opponents of the legislation, going so far as to oppose the Senate taking up the measure before the mid-term elections. A version already has passed the House of Representatives.
Senate supporters include leaders on both sides of the aisle, including Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Grassley is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Durbin is the Senate minority whip. Opponents include Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump pointedly noted Thursday must fall in line on criminal justice reforms.
Malloy won bipartisan passage in 2015 of a “Second Chance Society” bill that eliminated prison as a punishment for many drug possession crimes, a step the governor says addresses the fiscal and social costs of incarceration, a mission supported by fiscal conservatives and social liberals.
Nonpartisan legislative analysts predicted that a provision reclassifying most drug-possession crimes as misdemeanors would mean 1,120 fewer inmates. In 2016, the actual number turned out to be 1,130.
Two of the candidates trying to succeed Malloy, Democrat Ned Lamont and petitioning candidate Oz Griebel, said during a recent debate they would continue Malloy’s reform efforts. Republican Bob Stefanowski did not.
“I don’t think he has a comprehensive understanding of the interconnectedness of governmental expenses and results,” Malloy said.
One of the Malloy administration’s prison reforms, the Risk Reduction Earned Credit authorized by the General Assembly in 2011, has been condemned by some Republicans, most recently by Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, during a press conference 10 days ago.
As is the case with the federal FIRST STEP legislation, the Connecticut program allows most inmates — those convicted of certain violent crimes are ineligible — to shave time off their sentences. In Connecticut, inmates can earn up to five days a month as a reward for good behavior.
Connecticut did offer good-time credits from at least 1862 until 1993, when the Legislature passed a law requiring offenders to serve their full sentences in prison or under the supervision of the Department of Correction in a community-based program. The risk-reduction program created in 2011 has been modified several times through legislation and at the direction of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple.
Inmates are categorized based on a five-level scale of risk assessments, such as a history of violence, discipline, and other factors, with level five representing the highest risk. Based on their risk level, offenders can earn up to three, four, or five days a month. Inmates assessed at level five are ineligible.
Malloy points to research that indicates inmates are less likely to commit new crimes if they are incentivized in prison to further their education or train for jobs. Nationally, Malloy said, such approaches are not partisan.
The legislation before the Senate is relatively modest. It would raise the cap on the good-time credits inmates could earn from 47 days to 54 days.
On Thursday, Kanye asked Trump to consider commuting the sentence of Larry Hoover, the leader of a notorious Chicago gang, the Gangster Disciples.
Malloy and others say a more dramatic approach by Trump would be to support sentencing reforms, either by legislation or policy. Trump has not stopped Sessions from insisting that federal prosecutors pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences against criminal defendants, reversing President Barack Obama’s efforts to ease penalties in nonviolent drug cases.
“I think the president could make that happen if he decided to, but he hasn’t decided to,” Malloy said of sentencing reforms. “I mean, it’s nuance. When I say I want to do something, it’s because I really want to do it, and I’m going to lead to get it done — or at least admit I have a setback.”
Trump needs to commit and follow through, not just have an photo opportunity with Kanye West, Malloy said.