Earlier this month, more than 600 people from across Connecticut gathered at Mt. Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport. The hundreds of attendees didn’t come from one congregation or even one faith, and yet they were all there in united purpose — they were members of Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut (CONECT), gathered to kick-off the important issues CONECT will work on during this year’s legislative session, with one initiative taking special focus for the evening and for the year: “Clean Slate.”
Clean Slate legislation would create a system of automatic expungements of criminal records for individuals that have completed their sentence and remained crime-free. In the bill proposed by CONECT last year, that would mean that if a person serves their sentence and stays crime-free for three full years after committing a misdemeanor and five years after a committing a lower-level felony, they would be given something that should always be the ultimate goal of our criminal justice system: a clean slate, a fresh start, and a chance to move on with their lives as productive members of their communities. Without the stigma of a criminal record, tens of thousands will have greater access to jobs, housing and higher education.
It was a full house on Thursday that came to hear that message and to prepare for a busy year advocating for Clean Slate at the state Capitol. As a co-chair of CONECT, I can tell you we expected about 400 people. To pack more than 600 people into the church hall showed the energy and enthusiasm around this important and compassionate reform.
One of those people was an ally that we’re proud will be taking a lead role in this fight in 2020: Governor Ned Lamont. The governor’s campaign platform endorsed Clean Slate. This year, that support will mean a direct and active role in the debate, as the governor has committed to submitting his own Clean Slate bill for consideration. CONECT looks forward to working with the governor, his administration, and legislators from both sides of the aisle to hammer out and ultimately pass a bill that is robust and effective.
Last year’s Clean Slate bill, Senate Bill 691, passed the Judiciary Committee but didn’t make it to the governor’s desk. In 2020, with the governor taking on a more active role alongside existing allies in the legislature such as Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff and Judiciary Co-Chairs Sen. Gary Winfield and Rep. Steve Stafstrom — all of whom were in attendance Thursday night — Clean Slate is primed to make it to the governor’s desk for signature this year.
Passing the bill is first and foremost about doing what’s right by people who have paid their debt to society and demonstrated over years of good behavior that they are ready for a fresh start. Clean Slate is also about racial justice. Clean Slate will help make sure that our huge disparities in incarceration — blacks are incarcerated a 9 times the rate of whites, and Latinos are incarcerated at 4 times the rate of whites in Connecticut — won’t play out for decades to come in holding back people of color with criminal records from jobs, housing and educational opportunities.
We believe a Clean Slate bill should:
● Include felonies — keeping in mind that racism has played a role in sentencing and people of color are more likely to be convicted of felonies than their white counterparts;
● Maintain the existing 3- and 5-year waiting periods, making Connecticut a national leader in helping people with records get jobs, housing and education;
● Be applied retroactively so that those with older records can benefit from this vital legislation.
Clean Slate is also about what’s best for our broader society and even our state economy. The current system also harms Connecticut’s economy. A 2016 study estimated that $87 billion in economic activity is lost each year in the United States due to obstacles associated with criminal records, with Connecticut’s portion of that lost economic activity totaling more than $1 billion.
A criminal record should not be a life sentence to unemployment, underemployment and poverty. Connecticut’s Clean Slate bill will give thousands of our citizens a better chance at economic opportunity. It’s the fair thing to do, and it will help bolster our local economy at the same time. In 2020, Connecticut is ready to make it a reality.
The Rev. Anthony Bennett is the Pastor of Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport and a co-chair of Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut.
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