Republicans and crime victims were left Monday rallying against the passage of two bills. One would allow those under 21 convicted of serious crimes to request parole and the other would automatically erase some criminal records.
Both bills, according to the proponents, are considered steps forward in the state’s drive to reform the criminal justice system and make it easier for those who have served their sentence to become productive members of society with stable housing and employment when they are released.
Under the so-called clean slate bill, people convicted of misdemeanors would have their convictions automatically cleared from their records after seven years. Lower-level felonies would also be systematically erased after between 10 and 12 years, depending on the tier of crime. The bill does not apply to convictions of certain crimes like domestic violence and sexual offenses.
The legislation also seeks to protect people who have had their criminal records expunged from discrimination based on the erased convictions. The bill prohibits refusing to sell or rent someone a home based on their expunged convictions. It also prohibits requiring job applicants to disclose erased convictions in many cases.
Current law allows people to petition the Board of Pardons and Parole to expunge criminal records after a number of years. However, proponents maintain the automatic erasure of records would help ease the burden and stigma faced by residents living with records of prior convictions.
But survivors of serious crimes said the bills will hurt victims who are counting on truth in sentencing laws.
“It feels hopeless that a conviction, a sentence are not going to stay what they are,” said Jennifer Lawlor, whose daughter Emily Todd was murdered in Bridgeport in 2018. “We deserve some concrete peace, not a yoyo.”
Both bills were moved forward by the Judiciary Committee Monday along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against. The bills will be taken up by the Senate in the coming weeks.
The second bill that passed Monday would allow people convicted of serious crimes committed when they were under the age of 21 and are serving a sentence of 50 years or less to be eligible for parole after serving 12 years or 60% of their sentence, whichever is greater. If a person who committed a serious crime when under the age of 21 is serving a sentence longer than 50 years, they will be eligible for parole after serving 30 years, according to the legislation.
Under a 2015 state law, those who were under the age of 18 who were convicted of serious crimes have earlier parole opportunities. “That previous legislation was a good step but there is further to go,” said Kelly McConney Moore, interim senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut in her testimony to the Judiciary Committee during a public hearing last month. “Science clearly indicates that 18 is not a magic dividing line between young people and adults.”
The final version of the bill lowered the proposed age from 25 to 21.
The bill is aimed at young people who committed during a period when studies show that the brain is not fully developed, said Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport. “This is a look back at the cold era of ‘lock them up and throw away the key’,” Stafstrom said. “If a person has been a model prisoner they could get another look after having served a lengthy sentence.”
The bill would take away the discretion of the courts, Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said. “I would hope that our youth ages 18 to 21 should be told you shouldn’t kill someone,” Fishbein said. “I think this goes way too far.”
The so-called clean slate bill was criticized by Republicans who said the bill could place landlords and employers in a bad position if they are required to hire people who have a criminal background that relates to housing or their job.
The bill would require the Board of Pardons and Paroles to attend annual training that would include asking the body to consider the “collateral” consequences of denying parole. It would also make the board issue in writing the reasons why parole was denied.
Lawlor has a problem with the bill because it relies on a crime’s classification rather than the individual circumstances, she said. “You aren’t getting a true sense of the person’s crime by a classification,” she said.
But advocates, including the CT ACLU, have contended that the erasure of some convictions would allow people to become productive citizens with stable housing and jobs.
“Many Connecticut residents that have served their sentenced time for the crime they committed are not afforded the ordinariness of life that we without any criminal record take for granted,” said Earl Bloodsworth, director of the city of Bridgeport’s Reentry Department in his testimony in support of the bill. “Their criminal record is essentially a scarlet letter that follows them throughout their life ruining ordinary things like stable and livable wage employment. It ruins the possibility of stable and safe housing.”