The Connecticut House and Senate voted in quick succession Monday to adopt two major criminal justice bills intended to increase police accountability, end racially disparate sentencing and lower incarceration rates for non-violent crimes.
The House voted 108 to 37 for legislation that would encourage minority hiring by police and establish standards for investigating officer-involved shootings and equipping police with body cameras. The Senate passed the same measure unanimously.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s so-called “Second Chance Society” measure, which lowers penalties for drug possession and streamlines the process for paroles and pardons, was passed on votes of 98 to 46 in the House and 23 to 13 in the Senate.
“We are happy today. It’s a great day, a historic day,” said Rep. Bruce Morris, D-Norwalk, the chairman of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “These are things we’ve been fighting for for a decade or more.”
Both measures had passed the Senate only to stall in the House in the last hours of the regular session that ended June 3, but they were reintroduced for action in a one-day special session called Monday primarily to address fiscal issues.
Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the Second Chance bill was the product of a trend sweeping state legislatures in red and blue states to lower incarceration rates that are among the highest in the world.
“This is not a Democratic or a Republican idea,” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, the ranking Senate Republican on Judicary. “This is an initiative that is happening throughout the United States.”
Among the public backers in Connecticut was the conservative think tank, the Yankee Institute for Public Policy.
“These are smart criminal justice initiatives that are working in states throughout the country – both red and blue,” Malloy said. “And today in Connecticut, we have shown that Democrats and Republicans can come together to enact laws that will have a positive impact on crime reduction.”
Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, who led the House debate on both bills as the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, was embraced by Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, after passage of the second bill in the House.
“We changed some lives today,” Tong told her.
An Act Concerning Excessive Use of Force, the formal name of the body-camera bill, was the General Assembly’s response to local concerns and national controversies in Baltimore; Ferguson, Mo.; and North Charleston, S.C., about police accountability, primarily in law enforcement’s dealing with minorities.
“Body cameras have the potential to remove the opacity that has plagued so many recent cases,” said David McGuire of the American Civil Liberties Union, praising passage of both bills. “We hope these cameras will literally be an unbiased perspective that will protect the public — in those rare occurrences when an officer crosses the line — as well as the police from specious accusations.”
But what had been seen as the central element of the bill — encouraging and funding the police use of body cameras and language clarifying the rights of citizens to record police in public — were overshadowed during the House debate by questions about race.
One after another, Republican legislators rose to question whether excessive force was a racial issue, whether the minority recruiting language was discriminatory toward whites, and whether the state should even try to define who is a minority.
“Why are we defining white versus non-white? How is that helpful?” asked Rep. Richard A. Smith, R-New Milford.
The questions were raised in a series of awkward exchanges with Tong, the bill’s chief sponsor.
“Are all Italians considered white?” asked Rep. Charles J. Ferraro, R-West Haven.
“I would not make a blanket statement,” Tong replied. “Most people in common parlance would consider you to be white.”
“I do appreciate that,” said Ferraro, who recalled the father of an Irish girl he once tried to date as referring to him as a “dirty, filthy olive-skinned Italian. We were referred to as not really white.”
Despite his objections, Ferraro voted for the bill.
All 37 no votes on the excessive force bill were cast by House Republicans.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, was among the 27 GOP members who voted yes. She also supported the Second Chance bill.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, was one of six Republicans in Senate who supported Second Chance.
A nearly identical excessive force bill was unanimously passed by the Senate in the final 36 hours of the regular session. One of its sponsors was Sen. Kevin Witkos of Canton, a conservative Republican and recently retired police officer.
But House Republicans blocked passage with a filibuster threat on the last night over the minority-recruitment language, and revisions to the language did not diminish those concerns Monday when the bill was taken up in special session.
Rep. Rosa C. Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, the ranking House Republican on Judiciary, said she and many of the other GOP opponents applauded the intent of the bill, but felt it was too badly compromised by the recruiting language.
Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, an urban educator and member of the Black and Latino Caucus, said he was surprised at the tone and tenor of the debate.
“I really didn’t want to speak on this bill today,” McCrory said. “I really thought it was clear why we’re doing this legislation. I thought that everyone understands the need.”
Two retired police officers in the House, Democrats Joseph Verrengia of West Hartford and Jeffrey J. Berger of Waterbury, voted for the bill.
The bill exempts the body-camera video recordings from release under the Freedom of Information Act under several circumstances, including communication with other officers, encounters with informants, and interactions with victims of domestic or sexual abuse. Recordings depicting victims of homicides, suicides and accidents also are exempt.
The bill encourages departments to recruit minorities and prohibits them from hiring former officers who were fired or disciplined for malfeasance or serious misconduct.
It also requires that police shootings be investigated by a special prosecutor or a prosecutor from a different judicial district than that where the death occurred.
The Second Chance bill reclassifies most drug possession crimes as misdemeanors. For a second offense, the court could order an offender to enter a drug treatment program. Two subsequent offenses could result in a class E felony.
It makes no changes in penalties for drug sales. The bill repeals the two-year mandatory-minimum sentence for drug possession within 1,500 feet of a school or day care, but does not shrink the the size of the zones.
Under Malloy’s original proposal, repeat offenses for possession would not have exposed an offender to a felony conviction, but Democrats agreed to a Republican change that retains a felony charge for repeat offenders.
Because the school zones cover most homes in the largest cities that are home to many of the state’s minorities, more than half the mandatory-minimum sentences were imposed on black and Hispanic defendants.
Nine Democrats and 37 Republicans voted against the Second Chance measure in the House. Four Democrats and nine Republicans were opposed in the Senate.
Passed in the Senate with 22 votes in the regular session, the bill picked up a 23rd supporter Monday: Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield.
Hwang said the change about repeat offenders was an improvement.
“I always thought it was a good idea,” said Hwang, who called his original no vote a “very close call.”