To reimagine the criminal justice system, start with a face-to-face connection
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Recently, the first lady and I convened a group of state officials, judges, prosecutors, victim advocates and other stakeholders to discuss Connecticut’s progress toward improving the state’s criminal justice system.

Sounds like a run-of-the-mill convening of policymakers and practitioners until you consider the venue: one of our state’s maximum-security prisons, the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

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“Reimagining Justice 2018: Outside In” was the first-ever conference to be held inside such a prison, serving as a rare opportunity for those who shape and carry out Connecticut’s criminal justice policies to step into the confines of a prison and hear directly from those who are residents there.

During my time as governor, I’ve prioritized these types of meaningful interactions with people directly impacted by the correctional system, whether it’s been with people who are incarcerated, the corrections officers that supervise them or victims of crime. Over the course of my 24 visits to date, interactions with victims, correctional officers and inmates have become a central part of my efforts to develop meaningful criminal justice policy changes.

These experiences have informed many policy discussions and have led to extraordinary progress in our state. From 2008 to 2016, Connecticut has seen the complete closure of five prisons along with major portions of four other facilities.  More importantly our state has experienced the largest reduction in violent crime of any state in the nation over the past four years. We’ve also seen our prison population reach its lowest level since 1994 due to fewer and fewer arrests and prison admissions and while continuing to see meaningful drops in recidivism rates.

Despite this progress, much more work needs to be done in Connecticut and around the nation.

More than 2.2 million adults are incarcerated on a given day. Nationwide, 4 in 10 people released from state prisons are reincarcerated within three years of their release. Approximately 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent who is incarcerated. Almost 2 million times each year, a person with a serious mental illness is booked into a county jail.

Over the last 15 years, state and county responses to crime have shifted from building more prisons and jails to designing bipartisan policies that are based in research and data. This trend has reduced recidivism, bolstered public safety, and saved taxpayer dollars.

But an increased focus on evidence and data sometimes obscures the individual realities of the people who are closest to the correctional system—the person whose untreated mental illness is worsened by time in prison or jail, the child enduring the absence of an incarcerated parent, the corrections officer battling the stresses of each workday, the victim coping with the emotional and financial distress that stems from experiencing a crime.

Whether it be attending the reentry program graduation of someone preparing to return to the community after incarceration or meeting with corrections officers to discuss new ways to ensure a healthy working environment for them, these face-to-face engagements can help policymakers gain a deeper appreciation of the unique challenges people encounter when they are closely involved in the correctional system.

Personal interactions between policymakers and people close to the correctional system used to be rare. Fifteen years ago, the political landscape, still ringing with incessant calls to be “tough on crime,” wouldn’t allow for any personal touch when considering policies related to corrections and public safety. The threat of political damage caused elected leaders to overlook the human impact of criminal justice policy.

That disconnect led to a limited approach centered on the custody and control of people under correctional supervision. State prison systems became overcrowded, massively expensive, and detrimental to the public safety of our communities. Just as disturbing, there continues to be a dramatic racial disparity in America’s prisons and jails.

However, some leaders across the political spectrum have begun to engage with people impacted by the correctional system and apply what they have gleaned from those meetings to their development of policy.

It’s critical for all elected leaders and policymakers at every level of government to understand the high value of these types of interactions. That is why I, along with a group of 12 other Republican and Democratic governors across the country, have taken part in the Face to Face initiative, a call to action for all policymakers to personally connect with the people closest to the correctional system.

I urge all policymakers of all levels across the country to join these efforts and commit to following a thoughtful approach to policy that focuses not only on data, but the people behind those numbers.

Together, by considering the immeasurable human impact of our policy decisions, we can reimagine the way we approach criminal justice.

Malloy is governor of Connecticut.