Legislative Session Called 'hIstoric' For Justice Reforms

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut lawmakers and civil liberties advocates are calling the 2021 state legislative session historic for criminal justice reform.

Bills that passed during the session that ended Wednesday included allowing the erasure of many criminal convictions, limiting the use of solitary confinement and other isolation in prisons, aiming to make jury pools more diverse and expanding both the state's landmark “red flag” gun seizure law and the definition domestic violence.

“There really were very few areas of the criminal justice process that didn’t get talked about and in many respects reformed this year,” state Rep. Steven Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said Friday. “Connecticut has long been a national leader in the criminal justice reform movement. I think we passed some groundbreaking legislation this year.”

The headlining legislation was the so-called “Clean Slate” act that allows for erasure of many criminal convictions after seven years for misdemeanors and 10 years for lower-level felonies, if the person has not been convicted of any other crimes during those periods. The bill, which would cover an estimated 300,000 people, does not allow erasure of convictions for family violence, or violent or nonviolent sexual assaults that require sex offender registration.

Leaders of the legislature's Democratic majority said the bill would erase convictions that disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic residents compared with white citizens and help people who face difficulties finding jobs and housing because of their criminal records. It also bans discrimination based on erased criminal convictions.

Many Republican lawmakers and even Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont had some reservations about the bill because it allows erasure of convictions for some violent crimes. Rep. Craig Fishbein, a Wallingford Republican and ranking GOP member of the Judiciary Committee, said examples range from carjacking to interfering with police.

Lamont signed the legislation Thursday, but also sent a letter to legislators asking them to address his concerns that more violent felonies were not excluded, and that erased records will not be available to law enforcement agencies issuing gun permits or the judiciary in the event someone with a erased record returns to court.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut called the new law the strongest Clean Slate legislation in the country.

“Simply put, Connecticut residents will now be able to move forward in life without a cloud following them for a price already paid,” said Tracie Bernardi, leader of the state ACLU's Smart Justice campaign. “We have a system that on paper is cut and dry, but in reality never stops haunting."

Also this session, the legislature approved several other criminal justice bills that will:

— Strictly limit the use of solitary confinement and other forms of isolation in prisons. The bill would require almost all inmates to be allowed at least 6 1/2 hours out of their cells and also limits the use of certain restraints.

— Aim to increase the diversity on juries and avoid having too many residents from suburbs, which tend to be largely white, sit in judgment of defendants from cities, which have large minority populations.

— Expand Connecticut's law that allows judges to order someone’s guns seized upon evidence and probable cause they are a danger to themselves or others. Current law allows only prosecutors and police to ask a judge to issue a warrant to temporarily seize someone's guns. The bill would allow others, including relatives and medical professionals, to request a police investigation into whether someone's guns should be seized. After a gun seizure, the owner is entitled to a hearing within 14 days to determine if the seizure order should continue. It also eliminates the one-year cap on keeping someone's guns.

— Expand the definition of domestic violence to include “coercive control" and allow victims of such control to be eligible for civil restraining orders. Coercive control includes isolating the family or a household member from friends, relatives and other support, depriving them of basic necessities, making certain threats and forcing the performance of sex acts.

— Require prisons and juvenile detention centers to provide free phone and other communication services including video and emails. Advocates said Connecticut has been charging some of the highest communication rates in the country for inmates and their families, up to $5 for 15 minutes.

— Prohibit police officers from using “no-knock” warrants and expand the reasons that an officer's state certification may be canceled or revoked.