A criminal record should not be a lifetime sentence; that’s why we need the clean slate law
By ASTI JACKSON and PHIL KENT via Hartford Courant
Last year, we championed a bill that would have created a system of automatic expungements of criminal records for people who have served their sentence and then remained crime-free. It passed the Judiciary Committee, but wasn’t taken up by the General Assembly.
This “Clean Slate” legislation is now once again being considered by our state legislature, and thanks to the renewed and reinvigorated efforts of key allies, this important bill could become law. If it does, it won’t just benefit thousands of Connecticut individuals who have earned the right to a second chance — it will directly benefit our state economy.
In a current version of Senate Bill 403, being championed by state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, and others, most misdemeanors and lower level felonies would be automatically cleared from the records of individuals who have served their time and then remained crime-free for seven years in the case of eligible misdemeanors and 12 years for eligible lower level felonies.
This year, Clean Slate has garnered strong support from the ACLU, the Katal Center, the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance, #Cut50 and others. Gov. Ned Lamont has put forward his own version of the bill, and just last week Mayor Luke Bronin in Hartford used his annual State of the City address to make a clear and strong call for the passage of Clean Slate.
Under Connecticut’s existing system, people who were incarcerated can petition the Board of Pardons and Parole for expungement of their records, but the process can be difficult and cumbersome. Some going through the system will even hire attorneys for assistance, but most people cannot afford to do so, which puts them at a disadvantage. Moreover, from a population that grows by 5,000 people annually, Connecticut’s Board of Pardons and Paroles granted only 511 pardons in 2019, which is a nearly 27% drop from the year before.
The result is that most people simply don’t see the process through or won’t receive a pardon even if they do. A 2019 review of Michigan’s system for the expungement of criminal convictions, which works similarly to Connecticut’s, found that only 6.5% of those who were eligible for expungement actually went through the process and got it done.
This has a significant impact on our state and local economies. A criminal record is a major hindrance to a person’s ability to secure a job. The rate of unemployment among people who were previously incarcerated is 27%. With tens of thousands of formerly incarcerated people in Connecticut, imagine the impact of returning even half of these individuals back to our workforce in a meaningful way, rather than condemning them to life as second-class citizens.
This isn’t hyperbole. The difference between life with a criminal record and without one is drastic, mostly due to the stigma that employers, landlords and others associate with a criminal record, even for individuals who have remained crime-free for many years. The same 2019 study found that within a year of having their record expunged, a person’s wages went up by more than 20% within one year, on average.
These changes will matter, especially in communities of color, which historically have been unfairly impacted by Connecticut’s criminal system. Data shows that Connecticut has the fifth-highest racial disparity rates within our prisons in the country. African-Americans are incarcerated at nine times the rate of whites, and Latinos are incarcerated at four times the rate of whites. Clean Slate is one step to undoing the racism apparent in our criminal justice system.
One concern that has been raised about Clean Slate is a fear that arrest and conviction data could be destroyed as part of these reforms. The Hartford Courant, among others, has fairly pointed out that this data is critical in tracking not just the actions of those who run afoul of the law but of law enforcement as well. Thankfully, Clean Slate reforms would preserve the underlying statistics. While individual expunged records would not be searchable, they would still be included in overarching data for research and trend purposes, and made available to the press and the public just as they are under current practice.
That’s true of all the current versions of Clean Slate legislation being considered by the General Assembly, including Gov. Ned Lamont’s version of the bill, which was introduced at the beginning of this legislative session in fulfillment of his 2018 campaign promise. Gov. Lamont’s version of Clean Slate would not go as far as is needed, however, to remove barriers to jobs, housing and higher education plaguing those who, although not committing new crimes, continue to pay over and over for the crimes for which they served their time. Nonetheless, Gov. Lamont’s attention to this vital issue is critical. CONECT, which represents more than 25,000 people in our 29 member institutions, and our Clean Slate allies expect the governor to sign a stronger version of Clean Slate when it reaches his desk.
Connecticut has been a leader on criminal justice reform. In 2020, we are positioned to lead the nation once again by passing Clean Slate. We shouldn’t wait any longer — let’s act now, for the collective benefit of all of our citizens and our economy.
Asti Jackson of Community Baptist Church in New Haven and Phil Kent of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden serve as co-chairs of the Criminal Justice Team of CONECT (Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, interfaith, inter-racial organization made up of 29 congregations in New Haven and Fairfield counties (weconect.org).