A bill that would repeal the existing law that requires former inmates to pay the state the cost of their incarceration if they receive a “windfall” including money from a lawsuit won against the state Department of Correction was approved by the Judiciary Committee this week.
The proposed legislation, HB 5390, is supported by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice which oversees the prosecution of all criminal cases and the state’s Sentencing Commission which recommended getting rid of the existing legislation on the grounds it’s preventing those who have served time from getting back on their feet when released.
“The successful reentry of formerly incarcerated individuals into society benefits everyone, and this bill certainly aids in that endeavor,” the Division of Criminal Justice said in written testimony. “While an argument could be made for purported ‘windfalls’ of individuals winning multi-million dollar lotteries, the reality is that these laws generally seek to recoup moneys from small inheritances or personal injury settlements that compensate proven injuries.”
But Republican leaders said during a debate on the bill in the Judiciary Committee Tuesday that they don’t support repealing the law since it provides about $6 million annually to the state’s General Fund.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, doesn’t want the law repealed, he said. But he is willing to discuss a compromise of what money could be charged to former inmates. Gains from lawsuits are designed to make a person whole after an injury, Kissel said. “As opposed to buying a lottery ticket,” he said. “I think there’s plenty of room to make a more effective program.”
Kissel also pointed out that if the law were repealed without adjustments, there would be a $6 million hole that would need to be filled. “That’s got to be made up somewhere,” Kissel said. “Something is either going to fall by the wayside or we have to find another stream of revenue.”
The vote to forward the legislation to the House came mostly along party lines with several Republicans, some of whom worked with the criminal justice system or are police officers, voting with Democrats voting in favor and 11 Republicans voting against including Kissel.
The way the existing law works, the state can put a lien on 50% of a “windfall” such as an inheritance, lottery winnings, the sale of a home, or a settlement of a lawsuit on those financial gains of a person who was incarcerated for 20 years after their release date.
The result has been that formerly incarcerated people who win lawsuits, which are gains based on an injury, or gain through inheritances are being forced to turn over money that could be used to create a stable life and intergenerational wealth, said Alex Tsarkov, executive director of the state’s Sentencing Commission.
“Members have noted in their deliberations that these policies generate barriers to reentry and encourage a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape,” Tsarkov said. “Formerly incarcerated people face challenges finding employment and housing, and these liens make it all the more difficult to make progress.”
In some cases, inmates have won lawsuits against the DOC due to harms caused by the agency, including a lack of proper medical care, but were forced to turn over 50%, American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut Policy Counsel Jess Zaccagnino said.
“These clear harms are compounded by the fact that Connecticut’s prison debt system allows the state to reward its own lawbreaking by clawing back and threatening to claw back money from people injured by prison brutality and denials of medical care,” Zaccagnino said.
The law is preventing some communities from building intergenerational wealth, particularly communities of color which are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, according to Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven. “I don’t think we should be pulling the rug out from under them,” Porter said. “I don’t think it’s fair and it’s long overdue.”