Alex Brown is on track to graduate from Central Connecticut State University with a degree in social work after completing all the necessary internships and courses, she said Wednesday.
But she’s girding for a battle with the state Department of Public Health to secure a license because she has a criminal conviction that will likely make the process much harder.
“I’ve completed everything I needed to do,” said the 32-year-old Brown who was released in 2014 after serving a four-and-a-half year sentence. “I want to be a licensed clinical social worker.”
Brown was among the two dozen Smart Justice campaign leaders with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut who rallied outside the Capitol Wednesday morning to get lawmakers to pass several criminal justice bills that have been approved by the Judiciary Committee.
HB 5248 would end employment license discrimination against people who have a criminal record. SB 307 would separate the Criminal Justice Commission which appoints prosecutors including the Chief State’s Attorney from the Division of Criminal Justice where they are employed and mandate a prosecutorial ethics policy in line with national policies. SB 306 would stop police from using deceptive interrogation practices including falsely claiming they have evidence and SB 459 would increase out of cell time for inmates and set up independent oversight of the state Department of Correction.
Each of the bills was approved by the Judiciary Committee, but are awaiting debate in the House and the Senate. The legislature will be in session for another 21 days, said CT ACLU Campaign Manager Gus Marks-Hamilton, and the organization will be keeping the pressure on lawmakers until then to get the bills passed.
“We will be here for every session date,” Marks-Hamilton said.
The bills are vitally important to address disparities on the front end and the back end of the criminal justice system, many speakers said.
“Prosecutors control who winds up behind bars,” Claudine Fox, the ACLU CT public policy and advocacy director, said. Fox called for the legislation requiring more transparency for prosecutors shortly after former Chief State’s Attorney Richard J. Colangelo Jr. agreed to retire amid allegations he had hired the daughter of Kosta Diamantis to get himself and other state’s attorneys raises.
Diamantis was the Deputy Commissioner of the state Office of Policy and Management and also ran the state’s grant program for school construction. His activities with the school construction grants are the subject of a federal investigation. Colangelo stepped down on March 31. Diamantis retired as he was put on administrative leave in October.
SB 307 will shorten the length of appointment for state’s attorneys who prosecute cases in 13 judicial districts from eight years to five years and require the state Office of Governmental Accountability to provide the administrative function for the state’s Criminal Justice Commission which hires, fires and disciplines prosecutors including the Chief State’s Attorney.
“Prosecutors are the most influential actors in the criminal justice system but their work is hidden from view,” Fox said.
Stop Solitary Connecticut is also seeking more transparency from the Correction Department with legislation that would set up an ombudsman and an advisory committee, said Barbara Fair, a founding member of the organization.
The PROTECT ACT which would have increased out-of-cell time for inmates, restricted the use of solitary confinement and set up independent oversight of the agency was passed by the House and the Senate last year but vetoed by Gov. Ned Lamont.
This year Fair negotiated with several stakeholders including Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros to come up with a bill that moves forward many of the same initiatives. “People need to be out of their cells,” Fair said. “We are not rehabilitating them if they are caged all day.”
SB 306 would stop police from using deception during interrogations which ACLU CT Policy Counsel Jess Zaccagnino said has led to false confessions. “Right now police can legally lie about evidence,” Zaccagnino said.
The practice has heavily impacted communities of color by leading to the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Hispanic residents, she said.
Like Alex Brown, Manuel Sandoval has worked hard to overcome his conviction to finish college and graduate school to be a social worker, he said.
He was convicted in 2009 of intent to sell narcotics. He graduated from St. Joseph University with his master’s degree in social work in 2019.
He finally was issued his license in July 2021 but not without a fight, Sandoval said. He credits the intervention of Rep. Bobby Sanchez, D-New Britain, who questioned why Sandoval wasn’t receiving his license even though he had graduated with his master’s degree, Sandoval said.
He is now supporting others by asking legislators to pass HB 5248 which would stop the practice of employment licensure discrimination for those with a criminal record. “This isn’t for me, I’m doing this battle for others,” Sandoval said.
School was a way to transform himself, he said. “I love the transformation,” he said. “People need to know that people can change and if given a chance, we can flourish.”