HARTFORD, CT — Automatically erasing the criminal records of individuals three to five years after they have completed their sentences will give them a better a chance of landing a job or finding a place to live, according to clergy and advocates.
It’s the first year the so-called “clean slate” legislation has been proposed and it faces an uncertain future as legislative leaders struggle to figure out where their members stand on it and hundreds of other issues.
State and local elected leaders, clergy members, criminal justice advocates, and formerly-incarcerated individuals held a news conference Wednesday to express their support for the legislation. An hour later it was listed as one of the bills that is a priority for the Progressive Caucus and the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus at a separate news conference.
The bill, which passed the Judiciary Committee earlier this month by a 21-19 vote, would automatically expunge the criminal record of a person convicted of a misdemeanor after three years and a person convicted of a felony after five years.
The bill is headed to the Senate.
CONECT, a collective of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and civic organizations from New Haven and Fairfield counties sponsored the press conference Wednesday in favor of the legislation.
Speaking at CONECT’s press conference was Rick DelValle, a former drug addict who now operates five recovery houses for addicts in New Haven.
DelValle said he became an addict at a young age because he learned the bad habit from his abusive father.
“I became addicted too, started drinking, smoking marijuana, used harder and harder drugs,” DelValle said. He said that led to repeated arrests to feed his drug habit and helped him earn a criminal record.
“One of the biggest obstacles I faced was finding a job due to my past,” said DelValle. “I decided to go back to school and become a drug and alcohol abuse counselor.”
DelValle said he’s luckier than most, because he found an employment path and future that many he counsels have not, because their criminal records have not been wiped clean.
“When a man is in recovery and he has a job he feels good about himself,” DelValle said. “Passing clean slate will benefit many individuals.”
CONECT officials said the legislation would have a positive impact on the economy.
They cited one recent study that estimated $87 billion in economic activity is lost each year in the United States because of obstacles associated with criminal records. Connecticut’s portion of that lost economic activity stands at more than $1 billion, according to the study.
“This important legislation will help level the playing field for Connecticut’s racial minorities,” said Rev. Anthony Bennett of Mt. Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport and Co-Chair of CONECT. “Despite important gains in criminal justice reform here in Connecticut, racial minorities are still far more likely to have a criminal record, even surpassing national averages. That’s just unacceptable here in Connecticut.”
Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee and is a primary sponsor of the bill, said “a criminal record should not be a life sentence to unemployment, underemployment, and poverty.”
The clean slate legislation was one of several that members of the Progressive Caucus and the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus endorsed at its own press conference on the North steps of the state Capitol.
“691 [clean slate] is a super important bill,” Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said.
After being incarcerated, Porter said, “the first thing a person is told is you need to find a job and you need to find a place to live.”
“If they can’t come back and have a sustainable income and roof over their head, they go back to committing crimes, because they have to eat,” Porter said.
The original clean slate bill was amended to ensure those convicted of sexual and domestic abuse and that those convicted of a felony have the burden of proving to the Board of Pardons and Paroles that they deserve to have their records expunged.
The issue of allowing those convicted of a crime to seek jobs and housing without the stain of their records haunting them isn’t as cut and dried for some legislators.
Rep. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, in the Judiciary Committee discussion on the bill, said there are a “plethora” of crimes that would be “wiped away” under the bill. He listed criminally negligent homicide and assault as crimes that would be automatically expunged.
“No input from the victim — just wiped away, no consequences, nothing,” Harding said.
Other lawmakers have noted the legislation would make is possible for a serial drunk driver to apply for accelerated rehabilitation, a program for first-time offenders, if they got caught every 37 months.
But it was not necessarily a partisan issue.
Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said he could see himself getting behind the bill if the expunging “came after 10 years, but not three or five.”
Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said Connecticut has made “great strides on moving forward with a second chance society,” and this legislation continues that tradition.
“If you’ve been convicted of a misdemeanor or a low-level felony offense, it should not be a life sentence,” Stafstrom said. “You should not be prohibited from getting employment or finding housing.”
Asked if they are worried about something bad happening with an offender who reverts to a life of crime, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said they can’t legislate to the “lowest common denominator.”
“We can’t stop good policy from moving forward because there may be an outlier here or there,” Aresimowicz said.
Stafstrom said folks are not likely to reoffend three to five years following the completion of their sentence.