Symposium Explores Solutions for Criminal Justice System

The symposium explored the mental health crisis in connection with criminal justice and touched on other important justice issues.

California Superior Court Judge James Bianco gives the keynote address titled "Addressing the Mental Health Crisis" at the Connecticut Sentencing Commission symposium hosted by UConn School of Law on Nov. 17, 2022. (Diana Nearhos / UConn Law)

The problems that trouble the criminal justice system – from a mental health crisis to the inequities of money bail – demand frank discussion and sharing of expertise, panelists at a recent symposium agreed.

The symposium, Criminal Legal System at a Crossroads, took place November 17, 2022, in the Reading Room of William F. Starr Hall. The Connecticut Sentencing Commission organized the symposium, which was co-sponsored by the Center on Community Safety, Policing and Inequality at the UConn School of Law.

In opening remarks, UConn Law Dean Eboni S. Nelson expressed gratitude for the commission’s partnership with the  center, which was established last year.

“Given the shared goals and missions between the two organizations, we’re so thrilled to be working together on these important issues,” Nelson said. “We hope that today’s conversations and today’s symposium will bring about further connections and collaborations.”

James Bianco, a judge of the Superior Court in California, gave the keynote address, focusing on mental health and criminal justice. Bianco hears cases at the Mental Health courthouse in Los Angeles involving criminal competency and mental health treatment. He also works with the Office of Diversion and Reentry, a supportive housing program. He described how collaborating with mental health professionals in the courtroom creates a kinder and more just environment for defendants with mental health issues.

“There’s no magic to it,” he said. “They treat people as people. They do whatever it takes to support someone to stay on the positive path of being in treatment, staying clean and sober, working toward some purpose in their life where previously there had been little or none.”

Following in this theme, the first panel, moderated by Jennifer Zito, president of the Executive Committee of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, also focused on mental health. The panelists discussed mental health services and treatment for individuals in the criminal justice system and alternatives to incarceration. The panelists included Connecticut State Sen. Catherine Osten; Connecticut Chief Public Defender TaShun Bowden-Lewis; Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin; and Dr. Reena Kapoor, associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.

The second panel explored nationwide reform of the felony murder rule and what that might look like in Connecticut. UConn Law Professor Anna VanCleave, a member of the sentencing commission, moderated the discussion with Professor Ekow Yankah of the University of Michigan Law School; Professor Guyora Binder of the University at Buffalo School of Law; and Nick Aponte of the Fair Chance Licensing Project.

The third panel, moderated by UConn Law Professor Kiel Brennan-Marquez, director of the Center on Community Safety, Policing and Inequality, considered juvenile justice reforms aimed at reducing criminalization and protecting the human rights of young people. Panelists included Richard Sparaco, executive director of the Board of Pardons and Paroles; Faith Voswinkel, assistant child advocate in Connecticut, and Zito.

The fourth and final panel discussed the recent wave of advocacy and litigation efforts toward pretrial justice reform. Alex Tsarkov , executive director of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, served as moderator. The panelists included state Sen. Martin Looney, president pro tempore of the Connnecticut Senate; Tehra Coles, senior policy counsel at the Civil Rights Corps; Michael Lawlor, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven; and Jonathan Silbert, a retired judge of the Connecticut Superior Court.

Ending the day with final remarks, Judge Robin Pavia, chair of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, expressed her appreciation for the panelists and the breadth of topics they covered.

“All of these issues are ones that we could have spent the whole day on, and I hope you leave thinking about them,” she said.

Watch the symposium on the Connecticut Network website.