A Second Chance for a “Second Chance Society”

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By Ruth Bruno

“The Connecticut General Assembly heard the voice of many who felt they were voiceless. For that I am happy,” said Senator Gary Winfield, following the Connecticut House of Representatives’ decision to pass Governor Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” initiative last month. The initiative will reclassify various drug offenses as misdemeanors and end mandatory minimums for drug offenses within 1,500 feet of schools, as well as mandate the use of body cameras for all state police officers. The latter section, Winfield hopes, will promote police accountability.

“The passage of the bill doesn’t guarantee that we will never see incidents like those we have seen on our nightly news in recent months,” says Winfield. “However, it does mean that there is more likely to be accountability for those incidents.”

The progression of the “Second Chance” initiative came to a halt in early June when it failed to come up for a vote as time ran out at the 2015 Connecticut General Assembly. The delay was due to a dispute over wording in a portion of the bill referencing gun laws.

“There was one big issue that caused confusion during the assembly that had to do with whether people who had a drug conviction could obtain guns,” said Winfield. The bill states that those convicted of possessing or selling drugs will lose their rights to a gun permit. Winfield says the wording of the bill needed to be re-written to clarify that this is not a new law, but was included to ensure that the bill is in accordance with federal laws.

Though the bill passed easily through the Senate the first time it was brought up, the House remained divided on the issue and engaged in lengthy debates on whether the bill was too soft on crime. “I think generally what you see is the same split. Many Republicans [had] issue with the bill,” said Winfield. Because Democrats outnumber Republicans, those who supported the bill remained optimistic that the bill would be passed.

Originally, the bill contained provisions to do away with all harsher penalties even within school zones, but after a pushback from opponents the bill was amended to gain more support. As the bill now stands, those who use drugs within 1,500 feet of a school will be charged with higher fines and could be imprisoned for longer periods, though this will not necessarily always be the case.

State Representative and House Republican Leader Themis Klarides, previously an outspoken opponent of the bill, says the revisions regarding the harsher penalties near school zones finally persuaded her to speak favorably toward the initiative. Despite her recent support, she says she understands why other Republicans were opposed to the bill. “It’s a huge political issue,” Klarides said. “It’s not something your typical person is going to feel a lot of compassion for. Their answer is, ‘Don’t possess drugs. Then you don’t have to worry about it.’”

Winfield argues that this type of “harsh” treatment towards drug use only contributes to the problem. “We don’t want the people who have served their time and redeemed themselves to be stuck unable to be employed. That only leads them right back into the system,” said Winfield.

For Torrington resident Leonard Rinaldi, 52, “the system” is a familiar story. Rinaldi was arrested in 2011 after the police raided his friend’s house where he was staying at the time. Rinaldi was charged with possession of marijuana and sentenced to two years in prison. Since his release, he says he has spent much of his time searching for odd jobs, as it is difficult for him to secure employment with a criminal record. “The community in general treats people with disdain,” says Rinaldi. “People make mistakes and I paid my dues. Not only me, but countless others. We should be allowed to re-enter society and start anew to become productive.”

Connecticut is not the only state looking to minimize penalties for people who have used drugs. 11 states, including New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Delaware, have repealed or shortened the mandatory sentence for non-violent residents arrested for drug possession. 63 percent of Americans polled in 2014 favored these changes in state drug laws , while 32 percent opposed repeals.

However, the hefty price of incarceration is increasingly becoming a concern for taxpayers. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, people who have been arrested for drug use make up 48.7 percent of the U.S. prison population. The National Association of State Budget Officers reports that taxpayers spend an average total of $50 billion annually for state prisons, and a study conducted by the VERA Institute of Justice in 2010 indicated that Connecticut spent an average of $50,262 annually per incarcerated citizen — the highest average of the 40 states that participated in the study.

Winfield and other senators have been eying these numbers when arguing in favor of the “Second Chance” initiative. “I think over the course of many years we have learned that the ‘tough on crime’ approach we have really isn’t tough on crime, it’s tough on people’s budgets, it’s tough on communities,” said Winfield.

With the passing of the bill, people like Rinaldi continue to move forward trying to create their own second chance. He recently found a job as a dishwasher and his probation will end in 9 months. While his situation is slowly improving, Rinaldi knows the record of his arrest is permanent and will continue to be an obstacle. “Those charged with possession will no longer automatically be arrested…why shouldn’t others be afforded an equal opportunity to turn their lives around?”

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