HARTFORD,CT – Gov. Ned Lamont’s top criminal justice adviser admitted it wasn’t a “silver bullet,” but he thinks the governor’s attempt to erase felony convictions is a good start.
Leadership of the Judiciary Committee didn’t feel like the governor’s bill – House Bill 5019 – went far enough. So they introduced their own legislation – Senate Bill 403 – that would automatically erase some misdemeanors in addition to the felonies erased under Lamont’s proposal.
Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said a number of people have been lobbying her on the bills because they are upset that their records won’t be included in the governor’s version. That’s because the crimes for which they already served their time are misdemeanors, instead of felonies.
Marc Pelka, undersecretary of the state’s Office of Policy and Management, acknowledged that the governor’s bill does not go as far as many would like.
“This bill will not be the silver bullet,” Pelka said. “It will not solve the challenges we all came here to work on.”
But he said it will help them achieve greater impact over time.
Public hearing testimony before the Judiciary Committee on Monday provided greater clarity around the two bills, which call for the erasure of a broadened range of misdemeanors and drug convictions, allowing those with a criminal record a better chance for employment, housing, and educational opportunities, among other things.
“A rap sheet in many ways becomes a permanent scar to someone that has already fulfilled their legal obligation to the courts who imposed their sentence,” Rollin Cook, commissioner of the Department of Correction, said in written testimony.
Misdemeanors represented 30,178 of 40,314 criminal charges filed in Connecticut in 2019, according Pelka. He added that misdemeanors can remain on an individual’s record for up to 110 years after adjudication.
Supporters of SB 403 – the legislative version of the bill – said legislators and members of the Board of Pardons and Parole (BOPP) need a more comprehensive education on the lasting “collateral consequences” that a misdemeanor conviction leaves in an individual’s life.
According to Pelka, Connecticut’s statutes include no fewer than 115 informal consequences that greatly impact an individual’s ability to find a job, obtain professional licensing or education, or find housing, among many others.
The hurdles often result in an increasingly difficult re-assimilation back into society, and prevent many from regaining the footing they once had or aspired to achieve.
“Even if a person with a misdemeanor conviction is the ideal candidate in the eyes of human resources and management, company policy may prohibit the hiring of anyone with a conviction – regardless of the severity of the crime,” Pelka said in his testimony. “Even if there is no such explicit policy prohibiting the hiring of an individual with a conviction, employers may assume their company will be at risk of being sued for negligent hiring, and therefore will not take a chance on them.”
Terry Nowakowski, a consultant for the Partnership of Strong Communities, said making it easier to find housing, through an erasure of misdemeanor records, will result in a mutually-beneficial effect for Connecticut’s towns and cities.
“When a community embraces those who have changed in this manner, it can lead to increased public safety and reduced recidivism,” Nowakowski wrote in submitted testimony. “Having an address and stable base of operations makes it possible for individuals to make and keep appointments, receive case management, and become accepted members of a community.”
As such, SB 403 aims to carve out misdemeanor erasure exemptions that have a meaningful purpose. Pelka stated that Class D and Class C misdemeanors, except for unlawful discharge of a firearm, loitering in a school zone, and drinking while operating a motor vehicle, would be eligible for automatic erasure under the policy.
Pelka extended this exemption to convictions for drug possessions in the state, primarily for marijuana, in a similar fashion to what’s contained in Senate Bill 16, An Act Concerning the Adult Use of Cannabis. Pelka emphasized that all exemptions would exclude offenses related to firearms, bodily harm, family violence crimes, sexual offenses, and stalking.
“Any clean slate legislation must be finely tuned so that it does not infringe on our duty to protect public safety,” the Division of Criminal Justice agreed in submitted testimony.
HB 5019 concerns fair futures following the erasure of a criminal record. The bill would create an automated software service to sort through and erase records that in turn create a harmful stigma for individuals to move forward with in their post-incarceration lives.
For eligible offenses, Pelka states automated erasure would occur seven years after the person’s most recent conviction, provided they have received no other charges or convictions in that time frame. These low-level erasures would not require individuals to appear before the board or even submit an application request.
“An individual who is able to go seven years without a conviction should be presumed rehabilitated,” Christine Perra Rapillo, Chief Public Defender, said in her testimony.
Language is also included to prevent and penalize third-party data sharing of criminal record information that often persists under current erasure statutes even when expunged.
“It requires private companies’ records to be updated at least every 30 days to ensure that erased records are permanently deleted from their databases,” Pelka said. He added that those found to be in violation would be subjected to “breach of contract” action.
Following practices from Utah, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California, the bill would see Connecticut become the 5th state to employ such an automated system. The software program, which collects and constantly analyzes data, would then notify when a candidate’s record was eligible for erasure, according to Pelka.
While creating a new third option of erasure, the bill would not remove either of the two existing pardon processes connected to the state’s Board of Pardons and Parole. Pelka said that both are still crucially important for handling some of Connecticut’s more severe and complex cases.
However, neither were designed to adequately scale with the number of convictions that have accrued in Connecticut over time. According to Pelka, the BOPP issues an average of 677 pardons per year, while in 2019 there were more than 7,736 convictions on Class C and D misdemeanor charges.
“In other words, there are more than 11 times as many convictions for C and D misdemeanors as there are pardons granted per year,” Pelka said.
Pelka said HB 5019 would free up Connecticut’s BOPP to conduct more important work.
“By applying this automated framework to criminal convictions that, due to their being low-level, do not warrant a full review, the BOPP can focus on investigation, analysis, and more complicated cases,” Pelka said.
Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, expressed concerns about the automated software’s inherent limitation of scope. Due to its design, the program is unable to track convictions from persons outside of Connecticut or the country as a whole.
“You’re assuming that every state enters this information into a joint system. That every state shares, which unfortunately in my experience in this Committee doesn’t happen. And we can’t force states to implement (software) and provide all of the information,” Rebimbas said.
Rebimbas also highlighted how the program looks at future convictions as a sign of exclusion for erasure instead of rearrests. She said this sets the bar too low when trying to identify candidates who have learned from mistakes and improved their behavior patterns.
“The automated nature really makes me uncomfortable. You’re missing individuals who have been rearrested or have pending cases,” Rebimbas said.
Others who submitted testimony in opposition to the bills were Judy and Bill Januszewski, married landlords who own several apartments in Enfield and Windsor.
Judy Januszewski stated that they are already obligated to follow HUD guidelines regarding blanket denials for housing based on criminal records. She argued they have a right to weigh factors such as time elapsed since a crime, age when committed, and its severity in order to do their due diligence on applicants.
“This legislation would further restrict our ability to provide safe, affordable housing and it’s becoming very discouraging to continue,” Judy Januszewski expressed in her testimony.
Her husband, Bill Januszewski, emphasized that access to misdemeanor criminal history is critical for ensuring a feeling of safety for other tenants as well, such as the elderly or young children. He stressed that many of his, and Connecticut’s, rental properties feature common areas shared by all tenants.
“Nobody deserves to be put at risk of personal danger because criminal records are erased or rendered off limits as a component of tenant screening,” he wrote.