The House gave final approval Thursday to a bill automatically expunging records of certain criminal convictions after uneasiness with the proposal among some House Democrats forced the Senate to narrow its scope through a separate bill.
The House voted 91 to 56 to send the bill to Gov. Ned Lamont for consideration. The proposal is intended to help formerly-incarcerated people move on with their lives and find employment by clearing records of their past convictions after between seven and 10 years, depending on the severity of the crime. It covers misdemeanors and some class D and E felonies.
“We will help over 300,000 of our residents find more stable housing, obtain higher incomes, and get better access to education and unlock opportunity which they did not previously have without the collateral consequences of a long-past criminal conviction being erased from their record,” Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who is co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said.
However, House leaders took the unusual step of requesting revisions from the Senate before they would raise the bill. Proponents in the Senate passed the alterations as an amendment to a separate bill Wednesday night. The changes excluded some additional felonies from eligibility for expungement.
During a debate on the changes in the House, Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said there were widespread concerns about some of the crimes that had been included in the legislation originally passed by the Senate.
“I think that what we’ve done over the past couple of days to really carve out some things that we’ve all found rather objectionable,” Linehan said.
During a six-hour debate on the House floor, Republicans lauded the decision to pare back the legislation, then offered multiple unsuccessful amendments intended to further limit the bill’s scope.
Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said he was sympathetic to the concept of the bill. He said he had two family members either recently or currently incarcerated.
“I know that people can change and those people are entitled to second chances. The law before us though, goes way too far,” Fishbein said. “We have a Board of Pardons and Parole that I think operates, for the most part, very effectively. People who petition to that board have the opportunity to show that they have changed.”
Later in the debate, Stafstrom said the state’s existing pardon system worked poorly for most people. Only about 3% of eligible residents ever apply for a pardon and those that do are often denied for technical reasons, he said.
“If every single person who is eligible for a pardon all of the sudden applied, it would take decades to get through the backlog in the system and this legislature would have to spend an inordinate amount of money to beef up that office,” Stafstrom said.
Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville, agreed that the Board of Pardons and Parole did not always function well, but he said the board was not the issue. If, hypothetically, thousands of people requested pardons, Petit said the legislature could reconsider the board’s funding.
“It really should be up to the people who commit the crime — and think it’s an important issue — to apply. I don’t know why we need to rescue people who are unable to stand up for themselves,” Petit said.
Petit, who in 2007 was the lone survivor of a home invasion in which his wife and two daughters were murdered by two men on parole, said victims sometimes have a difficult time advocating for themselves.
“People want to shut it out. They don’t want to come up to Hartford, they don’t want to get on a Zoom call and relive their trauma … We’re seeing a very tiny percentage of people that come and present their cases because it opens up the wound. People compartmentalize, they put it in a part of their brain to survive,” Petit said.
Proponents argued that the current system often prevents people who have committed crimes from reintegrating into their communities after they have served their time. Rep. Christopher Rosario, D-Bridgeport, pointed to his uncle, who he said was denied a pardon for decades. Rosario said his uncle stopped applying.
“There are thousands of people like Jose, thousands of people like my uncle that are right now, living with a scarlet letter on their chest. Everyone’s a victim. Everyone’s a victim. This destroys communities,” Rosario said.
The bill will now go to the governor, who in the past has expressed concerns about expunging records of felony convictions, especially those related to violence. Lamont was asked Thursday whether he would sign the bill in light of the changes that exclude some crimes but not all felonies. He asked for time to review the specifics.
“Let me take a look at it first,” Lamont said of the changes. “I’m very sympathetic to what we’re trying to accomplish, which is once you’ve served your time, once you’re out on good behavior after a period of time, you get a clean slate and it allows you to restart your life in a cleaner way. I think I’m sympathetic to signing it.”