HARTFORD, CT — Tiheba Bain has dual Bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and Women in Criminal Justice.
But the 49-year-old Bridgeport resident was turned down for a job with a “second chance” agency working with those who were previously incarcerated because of her own criminal conviction.
“I was recruited for the job, it sounded like the perfect opportunity in my field of criminal justice reform,” she said. “They called me back several times for interviews. But when they found out the violent nature of the crime, they dropped me.”
Bain and dozens of other supporters of the bill testified Tuesday before the Labor and Public Employees Committee in the hopes of getting their life back on track by having fair access to housing and employment. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, would amend current statutes by prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, public education, insurance, credit transactions, and government programs and services based on a person’s criminal history.
If the bill becomes law, any person who feels discriminated against in housing or employment could seek redress through the state’s Commission on Equal Rights and Opportunities.
“Right now it’s legal to tell a person that they aren’t getting the job because of their criminal record,” David McGuire, the executive director of the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union, said.
The bill would elevate a person’s criminal history to the same level as a protected class, he said. “This is really a bill about recognizing people’s humanity and public safety because when people work, they are less likely to reoffend,” he added.
Bain spent 10 years in federal prison in Danbury for a kidnapping that occurred 16 years ago. Since her release in 2011, she’s pursued an education, first acquiring an Associate’s degree and then dual Bachelor’s degrees. But she, like many other individuals who were incarcerated, is finding it difficult to find meaningful employment — even though she’s worked hard to get her life back on track.
“If this law passed, we wouldn’t face as many barriers,” she said as she waited to testify in the lobby of the Legislative Office Building with a crowd of about 40. “We’d be known for who we are now, not what happened in the past.”
The hearing room was standing room only with dozens of members of the ACLU’s Smart Justice campaign wearing bright blue “People Not Prison” T-shirts.
Anderson Curtis, who recently moved from New Haven to East Hartford, has felt the sting of discrimination after serving nearly 20 years off and on for a variety of convictions, mostly due to his addiction. He has been out for 12 years and has an Associate’s degree in Addiction Counseling.
“The stigma creates a perpetual punishment,” Curtis said. “Even though we’ve served our time, it’s like we’re still doing time but in a community-based prison.”
As a supporter of the bill, Steven Hernandez, who heads the legislature’s Commission on Women, Children and Seniors and the Commission on Equity and Opportunity, pointed out that the bill could include provisions so that people who were incarcerated for sex offenses against children will not be able to claim discrimination if they are bypassed for a job working with children. The same would hold true for those with financial crimes in their background who seek to work in a bank, he said.
“If they have served their time and there aren’t other circumstances that would lead someone to believe they would recidivate, the principle of non-discrimination should apply,” Hernandez said.
But without carefully delineated protections for landlords and employers, the bill has a long way to go before it would pass muster before the entire General Assembly, some committee members said. “We already have that protection,” Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, said. “You are not allowed to ask that (if someone has a criminal history) unless you offer them a job.”
Miner said he respected that formerly incarcerated individuals need “some” pathway to housing and employment. “If I own a two-family house and I’m not allowed to ask the person with a serious offense with a gun and there’s family with young children living upstairs and something happens. There would have to be immunity for landlords who rent in good faith.”
People who committed a crime at 18 and now are 50 will deal with their conviction for the rest of their life, Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield, said. “They do need help in getting back in society, whether it’s housing or employment,” he said. “I’m one of those people who thinks we can’t erase the past. The past is the past. But I don’t know how we can legislate against discrimination.”
Smith suggested tax incentives for landlords who rent to those who were previously incarcerated and some type of incentives for employers as well. “I would love to be able to help those folks who wanted to get back into the workforce,” he said.
Porter told the story of a young man she recently met who is educated and working, but living in a homeless shelter because of his criminal record. “I know people who are living this every day,” Porter said. Her concern is that there are “huge” disparities and disenfranchisement, particularly for people of color, she said.
She agreed that there should be some protections for landlords and others, but Porter said the bill also cut down on recidivism by allowing people to be productive again. “Everyone should have a chance,” she said.