The Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee says its agenda will most likely include legalizing cannabis but skip major changes to the police accountability law during the newly minted legislative session.
The curtailed 2020 session left several criminal justice initiatives on the table and appetite to address them now,, said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven.
“There’s a lot of desire to do a lot since we lost a session,” Winfield said.
The trick will be to focus on the important issues since the pandemic continues with its eventual impact on the session unknown, Winfield said.
Advocates plan to revive a version of a “clean slate” law that would erase some misdemeanor and class D felony convictions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut is also pursuing a prosecutorial accountability law that would shorten the terms of the appointed state’s attorneys to four years rather than the current eight-year terms.
Winfield expects the committee will again look at legalizing cannabis, a much-debated initiative that ultimately stalled in 2019.
He said he doesn’t think the committee will spend much time making serious adjustments to the controversial police accountability law which drew fire from police and Republicans. However, certain provisions in it will be under review, including the hiring of an inspector general to independently investigate deadly use-of-force incidents by police and in-custody deaths.
The inspector general was to have been hired by Oct. 1, but the Criminal Justice Commission failed to approve one of the two candidates for the job. At present, only attorneys within the Division of Criminal Justice can apply and discussion has centered around including attorneys from outside the office to enhance the independence of the position.
“We’re beginning that conversation about how we make that work,” Winfield said. “We haven’t made the progress we’d like on that.”
The CT ACLU will pick up again with “clean slate” legislation to erase some less serious convictions after a period of time. The organization’s attorney, Kelly Moore, said convictions for serious felonies would not be eligible for erasure. Instead, the measure is aimed at giving people second chances.
“Let’s have people who are reentering know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Moore said. Often when a person is released from prison they have great difficulty securing a job due to their criminal history, she said.
Moore said the legislation would include an anti-discrimination provision making it illegal for employers to discriminate based on an erased record. The CT ACLU is pursuing a separate anti-discrimination law for those who have a criminal record but whose convictions are not eligible to be erased.
The CT ACLU also is seeking a prosecutorial accountability law which would work with the prosecutorial transparency law that was passed in 2019, Moore said.
“We know prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system and the least accountable and transparent,” Moore said.
The transparency law requires that the Division of Criminal Justice gather a wide range of arrest and demographic data that must be submitted to the legislature annually. Under the ACLU’s proposal, every two years during a shortened four-year term, the 13 state’s attorneys would have to submit their data gathered for the transparency law to the Criminal Justice Commission for review.
Moore said this would function as a review of a state’s attorney’s work and allow him or her to explain why certain statistics are higher or lower than other judicial districts. It would also require the state’s attorneys to come together to create standard operating procedures for prosecutors statewide.
“There is no standard operating procedure for prosecutors around the state,” Moore said. “There are disparities in the way people are charged and sentenced because there is no uniform policy.”
Winfield also expects the committee to address the use of solitary confinement and “Jennifer’s Law,” named for Jennifer Dulos, which would expand the definition of domestic violence for those seeking a restraining order or emergency custody.
Dulos has been missing since May 24, 2019 and is believed to have been kidnapped and murdered by her estranged husband. She was denied a restraining order and emergency custody of their five children in 2017 based on the definition of domestic violence which does not include intimidation or threatening.