The ACLU of Connecticut recently launched ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut, a new initiative to turbocharge the fight to end mass incarceration in the Constitution State.

Melvin Medina, ACLU-CT director of strategic initiatives, and Sandy LoMonico, the ACLU-CT’s criminal justice organizer, sat down with communications director Meghan Holden to talk about why Connecticut needs smarter justice policies, how Smart Justice’s spark is meant to become a flame for justice, and why the Smart Justice cohort is the next group of leaders to watch.

What is Smart Justice?

Melvin Medina: Smart Justice is a national campaign to decarcerate and to reduce racial disparities in American prisons. In Connecticut, it's the same goal. We're choosing to center ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut on the people that have been most impacted by mass incarceration. We define that as people who are formerly incarcerated, family of people who have been formerly incarcerated, friends of people who have been formerly incarcerated, and communities at large. That's the base of what Smart Justice is about.

Sandy LoMonico: Smart Justice is a large campaign. It's a national campaign to cut the prison population in half and combat racial injustice. What that looks like in each state is a little different. Just like Melvin said, in Connecticut, it's directed by the leadership of formerly incarcerated people.

What does the fight to decarcerate and to combat racial disparities look like in Connecticut?

Melvin: Well, there's tackling the criminal code and looking at reclassification of felonies and misdemeanors, and re-sentencing to reduce the amount of time people are spending in prison. It means thinking holistically about reentry, about what it means to create a community that is thriving, so that people that are coming out are entering thriving communities.

It means seeking measures to prevent people from going to prison, finding options for diversion and for restorative justice models. It’s about looking at justice as, "how are we actually trying to make people whole, both victims and those who committed crimes?" It means looking at how people who have committed crimes are often themselves victims of prior crimes, too. It requires thinking about trauma and how that influences people's actions and what steps we can take from a public health perspective to reduce that trauma.

Then there's the political power organizing side. That is, if we are going to decarcerate Connecticut prisons, we have to start thinking about the political power of our communities, our families, our friends that have been impacted by this issue. Because our voices should matter collectively. We should have the chance to hold politicians accountable to vote for policies that restore communities, and at the same time provide real public safety. Formerly incarcerated people are a constituent base, and they should be seen that way.

"Formerly incarcerated people are a constituent base, and they should be seen that way."

Whose power are we building? How are we doing that?

Sandy: It's really important that formerly incarcerated people are the center of Smart Justice’s decision making. One of the ways that we do that is through building our ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut cohort membership. The ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut cohort is a group of formerly incarcerated people that are directly impacted by these issues.

Over cohort meetings, we have leadership workshops, open to anyone in the cohort, so that the group can build leadership. We talk about the issues. We let people know that they can work in the field, involve people in leadership opportunities, political engagement, legislative testimony, sharing stories. Cohort members are the experts on this issue. They are speaking truth to power, sharing expertise, and building connections.

Can you walk me through the timeline for what folks can expect to see from Smart Justice over the next few months?

Melvin: Smart Justice isn't a legislative program, it's a multi-dimensional project with public education, organizing, community outreach, and legislative strategy all wrapped into one. Our goal isn’t to build a traditional advocacy program. Our goal is decarceration and reducing racial disparities, and we will use whatever tactics we can.

Sandy: We have to think about, okay, what are the issues that cohort members are passionate about, and then the actions to get to those issues. In every step of the actions, we need to ask ourselves, are we getting closer to our goal? Are we moving closer to decarceration and reducing racial disparities?

What should people do if they want to get involved with ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut?

Sandy: People should sign our petition to show that we aren’t alone. After they sign the petition, people can reach out to Melvin or myself. There'll be a number of requests coming from Smart Justice cohort to stand with us, whether that's sending an email to a legislator, signing a petition, making a phone call. We’ll ask you to hold politicians accountable to the promises they make to our communities. So we’ll ask you to engage.

This is a community issue and not just a person issue. There are people from all walks of life, all ages, all nationalities who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

Melvin: The criminal justice system impacts everyone in our state. It can impact you directly because you were incarcerated. It can impact you indirectly because you know someone who was. Or it can impact you because your community is suffering from the barriers of the criminal justice system puts on families. Anyone who believes that the existing prison system, the cages that exist, is inhumane and believes that we need to decarcerate and reduce racial disparities is a partner in our Smart Justice platform.

If someone sees themselves in ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut, if they've been directly impacted and they want to get involved, is it an application process, should they talk to you?

Sandy: They should talk to me! I’m always seeking to build cohort membership. I ask people who may be interested in being member leaders about their bigger picture. We want to include people from all walks of life. There's a wide range of membership, and there is an expectation for engagement. What that looks like will be different for everyone based on their experiences and what they want to do. What I'm listening for is that passion, but also a commitment to Smart Justice.

Can you talk a little bit more about the impact that mass incarceration has had here in Connecticut?

Sandy: The average Joe or Mary should understand the humanity that is stripped when people enter the system — whether it's from bad policing or judicial practices or department of correction treatment or not getting the rehabilitation that people need in mental health or addiction services — and how that effects reentry. 

"The average Joe or Mary should understand the humanity that is stripped when people enter the system." 

When I think about the political landscape of Connecticut, I think about the national landscape and how important this moment is because of that. Connecticut has been coined as the “Second Chance State.” I think that gave the impression to a lot of folks that we are the leading state in the country and we're doing enough, when in fact we're not doing enough. Because when we're talking about humans and we're talking about formerly incarcerated people, we should have been doing more a long time ago. If people use past progress as an excuse to stop pushing for criminal justice reform, that's a problem.

A lot of time when people think about mass incarceration, they think of the person that's already in jail or leaving jail. We have to think a little bit larger, think about what mass incarceration does not only to men and women, but to their children and to their families. When you're tearing apart 13,000 families, you're impacting their children. So it's not just 13,000 people, it's way more than that. [Editor’s Note: as of April 1, 2018, Connecticut incarcerated 13,656 people]

If we want a strong economic future in Connecticut, mass incarceration has stripped us of pieces of that opportunity. Because if we're affecting families’ abilities to have their primary caretakers get jobs after reentering from prison or to work to support them, then we're affecting the entire state.

Melvin: Nothing upsets me more than thinking about the fact that for the last 50 years America has used prisons as a solution to a problem that they can never solve. Connecticut has drastically changed from the era of its thriving industrial and manufacturing golden years. People living in regional economies like the Naugatuck Valley and our state’s largest cities like Hartford were hit hard. Poverty grew and with it grew social inequality. The failure of what used to be economic engines was made worse by thinking that we can solve issues of poverty by imprisonment.

Members of my family were impacted by that. I know people who were impacted by this form of punitive approach that ultimately does not solve the underlying issues about why crime exists in our state and in our country. It really doesn't get at what we really need to be focusing on, which is how do we improve the lives of everyday people so that they have opportunities to make better choices, so that they have opportunities to thrive. America’s mass incarceration machine created barriers to rehabilitation and to restoring thriving communities,so we can't be surprised by the outcome.

The collateral consequences of the criminal justice system are huge. It means that the fight to end mass incarceration is not just about how many years does a class B felony get you and how can we reduce that, it is also about ensuring that people thrive when they're reentering society and it's also about thinking about diversionary programs, alternative justice models, and restorative justice models.

Sandy: Everybody who pays taxes should care about mass incarceration. We need to think about reinvesting our tax dollars in people and communities and uplifting them, instead of thinking that incarceration is going to fix something it is not.

Sandy, why did you come to the ACLU of Connecticut to become the criminal justice organizer?

Sandy: It goes back to a few years ago when I found out I could do this work. It sparked a flame, which later became a fire. It provided hope. I wanted to help the community, I wanted to give back. This giving back goes back to over 10, 15 years ago when I was justice involved.

I saw other people who were formerly incarcerated who were very successful, who are giving back to the community in many different ways.

That allowed me to see a light within myself. My interest became in going from criminal justice work to the prevention of incarceration, the prevention of violence. What I learned through that time was that a lot of people that came home, whether it was their first time being justice involved or their tenth time being justice involved, wanted to do the work, but didn't know they could. So I reached out to networks to see if there were other people that were feeling the way I was feeling, that experienced what I experienced.

I reached out with a different idea and a different model, that the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

Formerly incarcerated people are the experts in this field because we know what works and we know what doesn't work.

"Formerly incarcerated people are the experts in this field because we know what works and we know what doesn't work."

I realized that a lot of times we were being pulled into spaces as the person with good information, rather than the expert. It's really important to let people know that they are valued as the expert.

So, is ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut different?

Sandy: ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut is different, because we're built off the consensus that formerly incarcerated people are the experts in the field. We do our work that way and we're providing those skills and bringing awareness to the fact that we should be doing the work in this way.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This conversation is the first in a series of introductions to ACLU Smart Justice Connecticut. Next, we’ll meet some Smart Justice cohort member leaders who are working for change.