The Samuel Jacobs Criminal Justice Clinic (CJC) at Yale Law School has released its final report on the parole revocation process in Connecticut, following an initial release of numbers alarming enough for the state to make immediate reforms.
Asked by Gov. Dannel Malloy to look into the state’s parole process as part of his “Second Chance Society” initiative, the CJC began a month-in-time study for November 2015 of individuals who appeared for parole revocation hearings. The final report was issued in September.
CJC Director Fiona Doherty, an associate law professor at Yale, said CJC staff members and volunteers covered every parole revocation hearing that took place in Connecticut in that month, and that the results of the study were “stark and illuminating” to them. For all 49 individuals seen, parole had been revoked, and all had been re-incarcerated. At least 94 percent of parolees—some who did not meet competency standards—had waived their rights to preliminary hearings, and none had appeared with appointed counsel, the study found.
“Given the fact that there was a 100-percent revocation rate, the fact that 100 percent of the people got a prison sanction, not a single person appeared with counsel and that the parolees as a whole were indigent, that was startling to us,” Doherty said in an interview. “So we really just reported this and said, ‘This is what we found.’”
In January 2016, the CJC presented findings at the Connecticut State Capitol to members of the governor’s staff, the Board of Pardons and Paroles (BOPP), the Department of Correction and the Office of Policy and Management. Following that presentation, the BOPP immediately began changing its practices for preliminary hearings.
The CJC administered a follow-up survey to parolees, revealing that 79 percent had lost jobs as a consequence of parole revocation, and that most parolees did not understand the rights they had waived during the revocation process.
Connecticut Undersecretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Mike Lawlor said the state has been open to learning from the results of the Yale study to improve the state’s criminal justice system and reduce crime in general. “This is not the first time we’ve worked with Yale Law School resulting in major changes to our criminal justice system,” he said in an interview. “Some major changes to solitary confinement were made four to five years ago. It’s a very small number of inmates now with administrative segregation status.”
Lawlor said Malloy’s Second Chance Society is the force behind doing these studies and focusing on reform. “The governor is very clear about this. We want to work with people. We don’t want to wait for them to sue us. The goal, ultimately, is to have less crime going forward, and that’s what’s happening.”
The undersecretary added that “there’s no question” that Connecticut has become one of the most successful states in the country for lowering crime. “It’s always hard to explain this stuff in a really comprehensive way, but what I continuously say to people is our No. 1 goal is reducing crime. Our No. 2 goal is reducing spending and our No. 3 goal is restoring confidence in the criminal justice system.”
That includes, among other issues, supporting victims’ rights; connecting with African-American and Latino residents who may feel the system has not been fair to them; and addressing wrongful convictions, corruption and police brutality. “All of those things undermine people’s confidence in the criminal justice system, so people don’t cooperate with the cops—and jurors won’t vote to convict,” Lawlor said.
Lawlor commented that the criminal justice system often gets blamed for problems that begin elsewhere. “There’s a tendency of folks, when they have a complicated problem, to dump on the criminal justice system. You have drugs, mental illness—I understand how that comes to pass—but I can tell you for sure, the system is not designed to deal with those problems. The last place—and the most expensive place—to do it is in a prison, police station or courthouse, and that’s pretty clear.”
Nonetheless, statistics show that the United States has quadrupled its prison population since 1980, despite a long-term trend of decreasing crime. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. holds nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners, at an annual cost of more than $74 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice.
A report released last month by DOJ, meanwhile, links problems with municipal court systems to “unchecked discretion or stringent requirements to impose fines or fees [which] have led to discrimination and inequitable access to justice, when not exercised in accordance with the protections afforded under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution.” Commissioned in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, “Targeted Fines and Fees Against Communities of Color” started with an analysis of Ferguson’s municipal court system and expanded into a nationwide study with recommendations for reform. “In addition,” the report states, “if a jurisdiction’s primary goal is to generate revenue rather than promote public safety, it can create an incentive for law enforcement to issue as many citations as possible, contrary to the pursuit of justice.”
In Connecticut, the Yale Law report’s findings are illustrated with anecdotes from actual case studies, including 22-year-old “Mr. A,” a parolee with cognitive and developmental disabilities whose sponsor had lost his home and could no longer house him. “At the revocation hearing, Mr. A. struggled to communicate basic facts and details, and his responses indicated that he did not understand questions posed by the Board. For instance, Mr. A repeatedly said that he was scheduled to leave prison on March 12, 2012—even though the hearing was taking place in November 2015. Mr. A was ordered held until the end of his sentence. He could have benefited greatly from legal representation.”
A volunteer who assisted in the Yale study, third-year law student Theo Torres, said in a statement that he and others “were deeply unsettled by the parole revocation hearings we observed in November 2015. People were waiving their rights virtually across the board.”
But Torres noted that it was encouraging to see Connecticut leaders focusing on reforms. “It’s been a special opportunity to see our efforts begin to push the system forward,” Torres said. “We look forward to continuing our work with the Board of Pardons and Paroles to implement the reforms proposed in this report.”
In March 2016, the BOPP began implementing reforms to Connecticut’s parole revocation practices in response to the Yale study, starting with preliminary hearings in all cases involving parolees accused of technical violations. Follow-up interviews were completed by the CJC with 34 of the 49 parolees observed, with respondents relating their experiences, including their understanding of the procedures; their knowledge of their rights; their decisions to waive or invoke rights; and the personal consequences of revocation. Some were released.
Doherty said that, despite the unsettling nature of some of the information unearthed in the CJC report, the process has yielded good dialogue, along with a desire to make positive changes. “I think what’s actually quite extraordinary in Connecticut has been the willingness to ask a law school clinic to do this, and hold up a mirror and say, ‘This is what we see. These are the problems, and now that we know about them we have to take steps to address them.”