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Malloy proposes sentence reductions, other ideas to promote 'second chance society'

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NEW HAVEN, Connecticut — Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Tuesday unveiled a series of legislative proposals aimed at giving nonviolent criminal offenders a second chance, including the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

The Democrat contends it makes more sense, both fiscally and morally, to help nonviolent offenders reintegrate into society rather than return to a life behind bars.

"We cannot perpetually be a punitive society," Malloy said during an address at Yale Law School. "We have to do better in Connecticut."

Malloy, a former prosecutor, said he wants to reclassify the possession of illegal drugs as a misdemeanor unless there is evidence the person intends to sell or deal drugs. In recent years, Malloy said about a dozen states, including South Carolina, California, Arkansas and Georgia, have reduced criminal penalties for drug possession. Malloy also wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession in Connecticut, but still give judges the discretion to impose a range of sentences.

Malloy's latest proposals, dubbed his "Second Chance Society" initiatives, follow his previous efforts to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders in Connecticut prisons. He pushed through legislation in 2011 that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Of the 16,300 people currently incarcerated in Connecticut, Malloy estimates about half are nonviolent. Yet Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, questioned the premise that Connecticut's prisons are filled with drug offenders.

"First-time offenders almost never get any arrest record," said Fasano, who said he would still be inclined to support Malloy's idea of scrapping mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

The governor also plans to introduce legislation this year to expedite the parole hearing process for nonviolent offenders, saying applications for too many low-risk inmates are unnecessarily delayed or never heard by the state's Board of Pardons and Parole. Malloy also called for streamlining the pardons process to help more nonviolent offenders get a full pardon after they've completed probation or a prison sentence, followed by several years of being a responsible citizen. He said too many ex-offenders can't find a job because of a years-old felony conviction on their record.

Malloy appeared confident the Democratic-controlled General Assembly would pass his initiatives this year. However, he predicted some resistance, especially from the legislature's minority Republicans. Some in the GOP have been particularly critical of the Malloy administration's Risk Reduction Earned Credit Program. Created in 2011, it allows inmates to earn credits for complying with various programs, and for accompanying good behavior. Republicans claim the program has helped dangerous criminals return to the streets.

Malloy, however, maintains crime in Connecticut is at a 48-year low and his initiatives are working, including recent gun control legislation and greater community policing efforts. The governor also contends that truly violent criminals are spending more time behind bars than previously.

"Let us not allow the same fears that have driven public policy in the past to drive public policy in the future," Malloy said.

Fasano voiced concern about expediting the parole process, pointing to how the state purposely created a full-time board in the wake of the 2007 deadly Cheshire home invasion to make sure offenders are thoroughly vetted. Fasano suggested a separate docket be created for nonviolent offenders.

The Republican leader said he agrees with Malloy that more needs to be done to make sure that former inmates have more job opportunities. Senate Republicans plan to unveil their own proposal later in the session.

Besides his new legislative proposals, Malloy said he plans to impose some additional changes in the coming days and weeks using his executive powers. He did not elaborate.

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