Dawn Grant graduated from Columbia University with a 3.8 grade point average. But she feels like she will be forever known as Inmate Number 208552.
“The judge sentenced me to six-and-a-half years,” she said. “But Connecticut said I’m sentenced for life.”
Grant was among the crowd of supporters on hand Wednesday when Judiciary Committee Co-Chairs Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, announced their intention to propose an expanded version of the “clean slate” legislation recommended by Gov. Ned Lamont.
Under Lamont’s plan, the bill would allow for the erasure of some misdemeanor convictions, including misdemeanor drug convictions, allowing people with a criminal record to gain better access to employment, housing and education. Lamont also wants to train those involved with the pardon process on the “collateral consequences” that a conviction can have on a person’s life.
Winfield said he wants to broaden the bill by having a “conversation” on expanding the erasures to include all misdemeanors and some C and D felony convictions to help even more people lead productive lives in the community. He and Stafstrom also want to include provisions to make employers and landlords accountable if they discriminate against those with criminal records.
“What we are doing is re-centering the conversation,” Winfield said. “This is not a conversation about whether we tick off a particular misdemeanor or a particular felony. It’s a conversation about what we, as a society believe about other members of society who have spent some time in our prisons. This is a conversation that is about whether or not we believe what we say.”
Winfield went to explain that most people have heard or said, “If you do the crime, you do the time.” But what people don’t consider is that the phrase wasn’t meant to have a lifelong impact on people who have spent time in prison or have a criminal conviction.
“If you do the crime, you do the time, you do the time, you do the time,” Winfield said. He’s asking other legislators and the public to “rethink positions they’ve held for a long time.”
“When my mother said, ‘You do the crime, you do the time’, she didn’t mean for the rest of my life,” Winfield said.
The expanded bill is in the process of being drafted, Winfield said. The legislation will include some technical adjustments to make it easier to erase a criminal convictions rather than the lengthy pardon process which requires a review by the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The typical candidates for erasure of a conviction are those people who are three to five years post-incarceration and have not re-offended, Stafstrom said.
“The question is how and at what point do we erase past criminal convictions and give people an actual second chance?” Stafstrom said.
Studies have shown that people who are able to find solid employment and stable housing help the economy and drive economic development in urban centers, Stafstrom said. “We’re not tough on crime, we’re smart on crime,” he said.
Under the expanded bill, the pardon process would be adjusted so that those on the Board of Pardons and Paroles would have a better understanding of the “collateral consequences” of a criminal record which can include problems in gaining housing and employment, the legislators said.
Dozens of supporters, many of whom have found it difficult to find housing or jobs, were on hand to tell their stories. Terri Ricks, a Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union Smart Justice leader is still not able to rent an apartment in her own name 14 years after her conviction.
“I have been a productive citizen since 2005 and developed my own clothing line, but still I can’t get an LLC,” Ricks said.
Grant has been turned down for a pardon four times.
“The first time I was denied, I took on the chin. It hurt, but I took it on the chin,” she said. As a licensed clinical social worker she runs her own successful practice in New Haven.
But she is still required to fill out a 21-page pardon application that includes an essay detailing every aspect of her life that also requires her to explain why she deserves a pardon. “You’re writing a letter asking strangers to give you a chance based off of this piece of paper,’ she said. “It was harder for me to write that essay than my college entrance exam.”
Grant no longer seeks a pardon but instead wonders why she had to start her own practice so she can be gainfully employed. She was released from prison in 1998, and hasn’t been on any type of supervision since 1999. “Why should we continue to be punished because we cannot receive a pardon?” she said.