Trump, Malloy and the strange bedfellows of reform
Was it more surprising that President Donald Trump listened to rapper Kanye West’s stream-of-conscious 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 midterm 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.
“If he doesn’t, then he gets overruled by me,” Trump said.
Grassley and Durbin also are sponsors of the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes, echoing an approach take by Connecticut and other states.
In April, Grassley’s office described the measure as based on “state-level comprehensive criminal justice reforms that have reduced crime, incarceration and the taxpayer burden in states across the country.”
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 drugpossession 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, mostly 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.
“Risk reduction exists in almost every state,” Malloy said. “Connecticut was an outlier in not having rewards for appropriate behavior while incarcerated, which includes getting a GED or a high-school diploma or college credits or a training program or, quite frankly, being a model prisoner.”
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.