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Southport Advocate Brings Prison Reform Message To Westport Sunrise Rotary

John Santa, chairman of the Malta American Association, speaks recently to the Westport Sunrise Rotary.
John Santa, chairman of the Malta American Association, speaks recently to the Westport Sunrise Rotary. Photo Credit: Hal Levy

WESTPORT, Conn. — John Santa, chairman of the Malta Justice Initiative, recently brought his message of the dangers of the nation's "hyper-incarceration" of criminals to the Westport Sunrise Rotary.

The core of Santa's message was this: Connecticut’s prisons hold 16,000 inmates, and most are young, poor and members of a minority group. They read, on average, at the fifth grade level, and 90 percent enter prison with drug addictions or mental health issues, he said.

This costs the nation nearly $1 billion a year, he said. But the recidivism rate is nearly 60 percent — in large measure because U.S. prisons are meant to contain and punish offenders, not rehabilitate them, nor to treat the mentally ill or drug addicted, said Santa, a Southport resident who founded the Malta Justice Initiative to address unfair prison practices.

Santa has been a longtime fighter for those who are incarcerated, and a voice in the modern criminal justice reform movement.

The criminal justice system plays an important role in society, he said, because there are “malefactors who are unfit to live in free society.” But Santa said he is working against a prison system “built on the assumption that offenders are irredeemable.”

Santa emphasized his point, saying, “The problem is not the drugs, it’s the addiction.” It is more a public health issue than a criminal justice issue, he said. This country’s “hyper-incarceration” began when President Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs and instituted tough laws and harsh minimum sentences against drug offenders.

One consequence is that the U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of its prisoners, he said. "We incarcerate about 780 people per 100,000, Germany, only 78," Santa said. Germany — and most of Western Europe — prescribes treatment after a person’s first two drug arrests, he said. Only after the third arrest are offenders sentenced to prison, Santa said.

In the U.S., incarceration often occurs on the first offense — even though many, perhaps most, are non-violent and have committed only minor infractions, he said.

But Santa pointe dot recent progress, citing Gov. Dannel Malloy’s recent signing of the Second Chance Society Bill, legislation passed with bipartisan support.

The bill reduced many felonies to misdemeanors, eliminated some mandatory minimum sentences, and initiated a re-entry program at the Webster correction facility in Cheshire that includes 12-Step and Anger Management programs along with job skills and parenting skills training.

Santa called on Sunrise Rotary members to tell General Assembly members “the system needs to be reformed” and call for programs to address public health issues, train prison officers and educate, train and rehabilitate prisoners. Together these should yield a smaller, less costly, more effective correction system, Santa said.

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