Connecticut House Passes Expunging Criminal Records for 300K (Alain Lacroix/Dreamstime)
SUSAN HAIGH Thursday, 27 May 2021 10:27 PM
An estimated 300,000 people in Connecticut with misdemeanor and low-level felony records could ultimately have those convictions automatically erased under legislation that cleared the House of Representatives on Thursday.
The bill passed 91-56 and now heads to Democratic Ned Lamont's desk.
It followed an emotional day-long debate where opponents spoke about crime victims who are still suffering from what happened to them and won't have a say in whether a perpetrator's crime is expunged. Yet proponents recalled stories of friends, loved ones and associates who have struggled with the "scarlet letter" of having a criminal record.
"We will help over 300,000 of our residents find more stable housing, obtain higher income and get better access to education and unlock opportunities which they previously did not have," said state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chair of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee.
While he urged his colleagues to vote for the bill, Stafstrom acknowledged he wished it went further. The bill was pared back during negotiations and now no longer applies to some more serious felonies. But critics of the bill said it goes too far.
"There are many violent crimes that are being erased in this legislation," said Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, the committee's ranking Republican. He ticked off a list of crimes, ranging from interfering with a police officer to carjacking.
Republican lawmakers, joined by a handful of Democrats in the Democratic controlled chamber, attempted to strip some of the crimes from the bill where a person’s conviction records would be erased. Each effort to amend the bill, however, narrowly failed.
Under the legislation, eligible misdemeanors and felonies would be automatically erased after someone’s sentence has been completed and if they have not been convicted of any additional crimes for seven to 10 years, depending on whether they’re trying to get a misdemeanor or felony expunged. Convictions that occurred on or after Jan. 1, 2000 would be affected. Anyone convicted of offenses prior to that date would have to petition to have their offenses erased.
Also, it would ban discrimination against people with erased criminal history in several areas, including employment, housing, credit, higher education, and insurance.
"Too many of the people who have served time seemingly serve time for the rest of their lives," said Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford, who spoke of his late father who had struggled with finding a job after being incarcerated multiple times for drug-related offenses because of the "life-term sentence that he could not avoid."
Fishbein and other critics of the bill argued that people have the option to get their records expunged by going through the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles, a process that would be more thorough and careful than the proposed automatic expungement. The process, they noted, also gives victims the opportunity to Stafstrom, however, said only about 3% of offenders go through the pardon process.
"I urge my colleagues to think of those victims," said Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, a police detective. "And their silence on this issue is really loud because it just shows how beaten down they are and how much of an effect this has had on them that they can’t even come forward anymore to combat this bill."
If Lamont signs the bill into law, the changes would take effect on Jan. 1, 2023. Lamont has voiced some concern about the legislation and what crimes would be expunged, but said Thursday he wanted to review the changes made to the bill, reiterating that he agrees with the bill's intent to give people another chance.
Meanwhile, the House also approved additional changes to police procedures, such as a ban on "no-knock warrants," which allow officers to enter a home without announcing their presence. Other states, including Oregon and Florida, outlawed these warrants after the 2000 fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in her Louisville, Kentucky, home during a botched police raid. Stafstrom noted they are not currently used in Connecticut.
The same legislation would also allow for an "adverse inference" to be made in a civil and criminal cases involving the police if an officer intentionally turns off their body camera.