With full implementation of Connecticut’s clean slate law delayed until late 2023, advocates and lawmakers are urging Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration for more transparency on the law recently passed to help hundreds of thousands of mostly Black residents who still feel the punishing effects of crimes they committed years ago.
Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut, Sen. Gary Winfield, Rep. Steve Stafstrom, the ACLU’s Connecticut chapter and community members gathered in New Haven’s Community Baptist Church on Wednesday to relay their disappointment about the holdup in the full implementation of the law, which supporters called a last-minute surprise.
The legislation, signed by Lamont last year, will automatically erase the criminal records of people seven years after the date of a conviction for a misdemeanor or 10 years after the date of a conviction for certain class D, class E or unclassified felonies if they have not been convicted of other crimes.
Full implementation was slated for Jan. 1, but the Lamont administration waited until Tuesday to publicly announce that some erasures wouldn’t happen until the second half of 2023. Instead, the governor said in a press release, only records in approximately 44,000 cannabis-related cases will be fully or partially erased.
Lamont said in the press release that implementation involves “significant information technology upgrades” to allow criminal justice agencies to send and receive data, which helps determine whose prior convictions get erased. The delay is also partly a result of several legal and policy questions, according to a letter sent last week from the Criminal Justice Information System Governing Board to the Judiciary Committee.
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Now many of the nearly 280,000 people eligible for erasure under the law and who eagerly anticipated the change will have to wait several more months to have their records cleared. The frustration resonates with Black residents, who are more likely than their racial counterparts to experience incarceration and to have felony convictions.
“It’s definitely a big disappointment to me,” said Mark Douglas, a Black man who told attendees Wednesday about his difficulty keeping a previous job due to earlier misdemeanor charges. Douglas said he was fired on the same day he was promoted. He was also told that he could retain his position with the passage of the clean slate law or any related measure that would clear his record.
“It definitely affects all of us on a lot of different levels,” Douglas said. “By putting these things behind us, this is going to be a contribution to society, not a negative.”
Winfield and Stafstrom — both Democrats who serve as co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee — told people at the church Wednesday that implementation of the law is a “complex” and “robust statutory scheme” — but that it would have been helpful to have known and talked about any hindrances related to the bill earlier.
“Just as powerfully as we talked about the need to do this just a short while ago, we are speaking to the governor of the state and his staff,” Winfield said. “I will assure you … real work is going on. It is not just because people don’t want to do this work.”
In his own press conference Wednesday, Lamont did not expand on why the process was prolonged or why the delay was communicated right before the new year. He instead pointed to the thousands of marijuana convictions set to clear at the onset of the new year and reiterated that it’s going to take “a little longer” to get the rest of them right.
“We’re going to make sure that this is properly, and appropriately, and safely implemented, and I think we’re going to have it all done over the next six to eight months,” he said.
The clean slate bill advanced through the 2021 legislature following multiple objections and changes that lawmakers forced to the legislation. People in opposition to early versions of the bill sought a narrow list of crimes eligible for expungement, rather than more serious felonies as the House initially proposed. Lamont also favored a tapered list of eligible crimes and noted that it could expand after an initial effort proved successful.
Prior to passage of the law in Connecticut, erasure of one’s criminal record could either come through submitting a pardons application or both submitting the application and having a hearing before the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The level of the crime determined which option was available to whom.
Supporters frequently highlighted the need to help people formerly convicted of crimes with earning an education, maintaining a job and attaining housing — and to not punish them for acts for which they already faced consequences.
Race plays a significant factor in who’s punished and limited in access to basic needs in the state, as Connecticut’s Black men have a 48% conviction rate, and both Black women and men are more than three times more likely than their white counterparts to have a felony conviction — despite comprising less than 13% of the state population.
Emphasizing public support for a clean slate law, academic research in Michigan, which passed clean slate legislation in 2020, found that less than 1% of people who had a violent crime expunged from their records were reconvicted of another violent crime five years after they were cleared.
Winfield and Stafstrom said Wednesday that there’s a possibility for some kind of clarifying legislation that addresses any of the outstanding concerns that caused the delay. Both lawmakers also said that full implementation of the law remains a top priority ahead of the legislature set to convene in January.
Douglas, the Black man who lost his job due to prior misdemeanors, told the church crowd made up of dozens that getting people formerly convicted of crimes reacclimated to the state would benefit everyone.
“It’s not going to subtract,” he said. “We’re not going to lose anything by people getting jobs and elevating themselves.”