Tunxis Community College

A bill that would prohibit institutions of higher learning from asking about a student’s criminal history during the application process is awaiting action in the House after being approved by the Judiciary Committee.

The bill would prohibit colleges and universities from considering a previous criminal history when making the decision to enroll a student in a class or a degree program. It would also prevent using it to determine their eligibility for financial aid, grants or scholarships.

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The bill also creates the Postsecondary Prison Education Program Office which would approve colleges and universities to operate prison education programs at correctional facilities throughout the state and oversee grant programs and other ways of educating students who are incarcerated.

The bill originated in the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. 

The legislation has been hailed by advocates for criminal justice reform as a way to remove barriers to education for those with convictions and for those who are incarcerated.

“By prohibiting institutions of higher learning from inquiring about someone’s criminal record, it will eliminate the chilling effect that simply asking that question causes, as well as actual discrimination,” said Kelly McConney Moore, the interim senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, who went on to say that other portions of the bill “will help set people up for success upon leaving incarceration.”

McConney Moore said in her public hearing testimony that there was no correlation between criminal history screening and campus safety, according to the Center for Community Alternatives.

“People involved in our criminal justice system who finished their sentences have paid their debt to society,” McConney Moore said. “They deserve to live their lives in Connecticut’s communities without barriers to being happy, productive, law-abiding residents.”

But at least two Republicans on the Judiciary Committee expressed concerns that the legislation would allow people who have been convicted of sexual assault to live on college campuses without oversight and keep probation and parole officers from working with the schools to maintain safety for all students.

“So if someone were on probation for a sexual assault, they would be free to live on campus?” Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, said.

Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said he understood that the institutions would not be able to ask about criminal histories in the application process and there would be no background checks, according to the bill.

But Winfield said that state and federal laws regarding background checks or the reporting of criminal histories would likely apply in certain situations.

A representative for the state Department of Correction disagreed with creating a separate office to oversee college-level classes at the prisons. DOC District Administrator Eulalia Garcia called the bill “premature, unnecessary and too prescriptive” since the federal Department of Education has yet to announce guidelines for Second Chance Pell Grants for inmates. The agency already has an administrator for the grants and there hasn’t been a need established for the creation of an outside office to deal with complaints, as defined in the bill, she said.

“The department (DOC) has been successful in mediating issues brought forth by the institutions and the student population,” Garcia said.

The bill prohibits the proposed Prison Education Program Office from interfering with the materials or curriculum used by a college or university that have been approved to offer classes in prisons unless there are safety and security concerns – a practice Garcia said she was against.  

Garcia contends that the agency’s goal is to make inmates “more employable” by working with the state Office of Workforce Strategy to allow students to receive improved certificate and apprenticeship programs that would lead to jobs.

The Judiciary Committee voted along party lines with 14 Republicans voting against and 25 Democrats voting in favor. The legislation is now on the House calendar.