HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut’s prison population fell below 14,000 inmates, to its lowest level since 1994, largely due to a change in the way the criminal justice system treats young offenders, the governor’s office said.
The state Department of Correction reported Friday that it had 13,921 people incarcerated in the system, which is down from a high of about 19,900 in 2008.
Mike Lawlor, the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy, said the biggest reduction was in the population of inmates under 30.
“The farm team is drying up,” he said. “What some people refer to as the school-to-prison pipeline is shutting down.”
The under-30 population is less than 5,000 inmates, down from over 8,000 in 2008.
Lawlor said that’s about the same time the state’s criminal justice system began changing the policies for handling troubled youth. He said schools are using alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, and communities are dealing with problem kids through informal juvenile review boards, rather than putting them into the court system. The boards have the power to order such things as counseling, alternative schools and parental training.
“All evidence is that if you can keep kids out of the formal criminal justice system, the odds that those kids are going to be successful in the future go way up,” Lawlor said. “And that’s what we are seeing. They have now aged out and are not committing crimes. They are not getting arrested as adults and they are not going to jail.”
Correction Commissioner Scott Semple has also credited Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Second Chance Society initiative, which among other things reclassified some drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
Lawlor said following the model for the way it is treating problem youth, the state has begun a similar diversionary program for adults with drug problems. Under that policy, police, instead of arresting many drug offenders, take them to treatment facilities, so they can get help.
“You put them in handcuffs and arrest them and now you have a court date,” Lawlor said. “Miss the court date and now you have another charge and it’s just a spiral. And there is no data that shows that approach works.”
The Democratic governor announced earlier this month that as a result of the declining population, the state will be closing the 700-bed medium security Enfield Correctional Institution in early 2018.
Enfield, which opened in 1962 and currently houses about 700 inmates, is the seventh prison or section of a prison to be shuttered in Connecticut since 2010.
Malloy said the move will save the state about $6.5 million in operating costs.