Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Legislators seeking to reform Connecticut’s criminal bail system are advancing a resolution asking voters to remove constitutional language that currently prevents a criminal defendant from being held without bail in virtually all cases.

Under the state constitution, the only defendants who can be denied bail are those accused of committing crimes classified as “capital offenses,” a term that is now obsolete under state law. 

On Tuesday, the Government Administration and Elections Committee took a largely party-line vote to advance a resolution allowing some exceptions. Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, joined Republicans in opposition.

The committee’s co-chair, Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, said the resolution would allow the legislature to pass laws giving courts more flexibility. 

“No matter how dangerous the individual is, no matter how much of a flight risk the individual is, no matter how much of a risk to the administration of justice the individual is, that person has a right to bail,” Blumenthal said. “On the flip side, it means that no matter how little a risk the individual is, if the person cannot afford to make bail, then they will be subject to pretrial detention.”  

During the meeting, Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said he was sympathetic to the purpose of the resolution, but opposed the amendment because it did not state what changes the legislature’s Democratic majority would adopt if voters choose to remove constitutional barriers. 

Sampson said that other states had used bail reform as an opportunity to make statements on racial justice or equity.

“I worry that if we enact something that may be well-intended that it is going to be co-opted for political purposes,” Sampson said. 

“I just fear because the details are not here, that it’s the General Assembly that is going to set those terms and conditions via what is currently a Democrat majority. I can’t trust it,” he said. “I just can’t trust what those blanks will be filled in with.”

The legislature’s Judiciary Committee advanced the resolution last month on a vote that included support from Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford. During that meeting, members contemplated scenarios where courts would currently be required to grant bail to perpetrators accused of shocking crimes.

“At one end of the spectrum, we have the tragedy at Sandy Hook and currently, under our laws, if that was to happen tomorrow, which we all pray that it didn’t, the perpetrator, if they lived, would be entitled to bail,” Fishbein said. “Under our current system, that bail cannot be punitive.”

The committee’s co-chair, Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, also pointed to other types of violent crime. 

“If someone brutally raped someone, was released on bail, brutally raped someone again, they would still be entitled to bail, to be out for the third time,” he said.

Stafstrom said it was past time for the legislature to evaluate whether Connecticut’s current bail system was working at the high end, where wealthier residents could afford both to pay bail and potentially flee, and at the low end where poorer residents lacked the means to post bail. 

“I don’t have the magic bill that says this is how we’re going to fix it because, frankly, we can’t propose that bill under our current construct because this legislature and this committee’s hands are tied by an outdated constitutional provision that needs to be updated,” he said. “This resolution is the first step in that process.”