Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo
Sentencing Commission meets Wednesday to make recommendations to the General Assembly (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The Sentencing Commission Wednesday voted to once again get behind any bill that would restore voting rights to parolees, who are still serving their sentences.

The commission also backed the measure last year but it never came up for a vote in either the House or Senate.

Outgoing Department of Corrections Commissioner Scott Semple, who is also a Sentencing Commission member, said allowing parolees to vote is an “important step in their return to a normal and productive life.”

The bill didn’t receive much attention last year in the midst of the budget crisis that dominated most of the session, but it was a priority for the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

A deal was brokered to let them debate the bill for a limited period of time in the House last year, but it never got called for vote.

Currently, someone on probation can have their voting rights restored, but someone on parole cannot. The bill would have given the estimated 4,600 individuals on parole the right to vote.

Proponents of passing legislation point out that Connecticut is among the last states on the east coast to pass legislation restoring voting rights for this population. Seventeen states have passed similar legislation to restore voting rights for parolees.

While the Sentencing Commission voted to once again get behind the parolee voting rights’ bill, it backed off its earlier plan to push for a bill to study whether all people incarcerated should be allowed to vote.

The commission’s vice chair, John Santa, said the decision to back off the recommendation came after receiving a letter, and having subsequent discussions with Secretary of State Denise Merrill.

Merrill’s letter, Santa said, expressed concern that the Sentencing Commission might be overstepping its reach on the issue – and that it is the Secretary of State’s office that should be dictating most policy on voting rights.

“Perhaps it is time for us to step aside, at least on this one part of the issue,” Santa said, though he added that Merrill made it clear she welcomed the commission’s input on voting matters.

Although he went along with his fellow Sentencing Commission members, former New Haven State Rep. William Dyson said he felt it “was an important part” of the commission’s role to advocate for issues it believes in – including voting rights.

“We need to be a part of whatever takes place,” Dyson said, adding “the notion of voter suppression hasn’t escaped any of us.”

In other action taken by the Sentencing Commission in its last meeting before the General Assembly convenes the 2019 session, the commission said it would once again be recommend a bill to reduce misdemeanor sentences from 365 days to 364 days in an effort to stem deportations.
That one day would give federal immigration judges more discretion in deportation hearings.

The one-day reduction in sentencing, recommended by the Sentencing Commission last year, made it through the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, but didn’t make it through the full General Assembly.

“Hopefully we have a good chance to get it through this year,” said Alex Tsarkov, executive director of the Sentencing Commission.

At a public hearing held earlier this month, the Sentencing Commission was urged by advocates to once again support the bill.

Advocates told the commission that shaving one day off the misdemeanor sentences would lower the chance that immigrants convicted of lower level crimes, such as passing a bad check or minor larceny charges, would face interaction with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, agents.That’s because a one-year misdemeanor sentence in Connecticut is classified by federal authorities as an “aggravated felony” and can mean deportation.

Samantha Smith, a law student intern at the Yale Law School, told the commission that several other states have recognized the law is unjust and have adopted the 364-day rule. She cited California, Nevada, Washington and Oregon as states that have made the change.

The Sentencing Commission also, as it did last year, said it would ask the legislature to draw up legislation to move Connecticut from a conviction-based sex offender registry to a risk-based registry.

Connecticut is one of the few states that does not currently allow an individual an opportunity to be removed from its sex offender registry. The commission is proposing having all sex offenders register, but the length of time on the registry would be reduced based on whether they meet certain requirements.