Being Firm on the “Soft Side” of Crime


By Jesse Duthrie

From 1980 to 1990 the “problem” with drugs became the “war on drugs,” which led to a record level increase in the prison population in Connecticut. The state earned the dubious distinction of being one of five that spent more on its prison population than on education. Sue Quinlan, a former social worker at the Hartford Police Department and director of a halfway house, stepped into this explosive situation as the new director of Families in Crisis (FIC). At the time, any sort of outreach to families and communities was perceived as a “soft” solution to the hard problem of finding and locking up the worst offenders.

No one is ignoring the “soft side” of the increase in crime and arrests now. After three decades of inflated incarceration rates, Connecticut recognized the significance of issues that were once deemed less important.

Connecticut during the 1980’s was a tumultuous period of incarceration. From the Bridgeport to Hartford to New Haven, cities saturated correctional facilities as an alarming amount of men and women were being thrust into prisons.

It was a crime epidemic unfamiliar in Connecticut’s history. The state’s “tough on crime” policy led to stricter law enforcement, more prisons, and more tax payers dollars to pay for multimillion dollar spending to keep the incarceration system moving.

In 1988, after 8 years of working for the state, Sue Quinlan became the director of Families in Crisis. FIC’s objective was to help at-risk children, incarcerated members, and family members work together to strengthen the family unit; in turn, this could lower crime rates and help reduce recidivism. Sue’s appointed duty was to reach out and support families dealing with incarcerated members.

At the time Families in Crisis did not have a strong backing and its significance was hardly understood. The state’s tough on crime policy lead to higher rates of incarceration, however social programs targeted at community support were largely ignored or uncared for.

The incarceration burst from the 1980’s through the early 2000’s inflated the prisoner population to over 19,000 members. Sue recalls that slowly Families in Crisis started to be taken more seriously. After three decades of inflated incarceration rates, state have recognized the significance of issues that were once deemed less important. Sue Quinlan recalls, “When I first started doing this work nobody knew who we were and what we did and we really had a hard time fitting in because we were considered almost the softer side of corrections and that people thought it was a great thing to help families but not necessarily a critical thing.”

The attitudes towards the family unit and the effect of an incarcerated member had changed. Academic research was conducted and patterns emerged between children of incarcerated parents and the potentiality of the children’s own incarceration. The changing perspectives of these issues resonated throughout the state and allowed Families in Crisis to make strides in advancing their programs.

By the late 1990’s Sue Quinlan was working diligently to increase her agencies services and expand to new cities. Originally located in downtown Hartford, Families in Crisis extended their programs to New Haven, Bridgeport, and Waterbury. The expansion, as well as the creation of other social support groups throughout the state targeted in areas like employment and housing for ex-offenders, showed a new adversarial stance against incarceration in the state by addressing what was once deemed the “soft side” of crime.

Now, in 2011, the number of incarcerated citizens has reduced to the low 17,000’s. Targeting areas such as employment, housing, and families with incarcerated members have proven to reduce recidivism.

Helping families of incarcerated members is understood among state officials as a serious target for reducing crime and slowing down the rates of recidivism. When asked what motivated Sue through all these years, she responds, “The opportunity to ‘walk with the giants.’ I think there are many people in Connecticut the legislative level, administrative level, and even in the non-profit community who are very bright, competent people who are very much committed to creating an effective and humane criminal justice system.”




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