To Members of the state legislature’s Housing Committee:
I am a newspaper columnist and a member of the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, for which I’m speaking today in opposition to SB 54, “An Act Concerning Landlords’ Ability to Review Criminal Records Relating to Prospective Tenants” and HB 5712, “An Act Concerning the Connecticut Clean Slate Law.”
The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information defends the public’s right to know about government.
Criminal-justice reform in Connecticut increasingly is being construed as the concealment of criminal records and the enforcement of ignorance against the public. That’s what the legislation before you now would do for records of nonviolent misdemeanors and felonies, sealing the records if the offenders complete their sentences and stay out of trouble for a set time.
A criminal record indeed can be a serious handicap, but denying the public access to the criminal history of potential employees, tenants, roommates, romantic partners, and service providers would be dangerous and unjust. People are entitled to make their own judgments on the people they would closely associate with, and people should be able to know what the government knows about those people.
Limiting the sealing of records to those involving nonviolent offenses, as is being proposed, seems to contemplate mainly drug dealing. Drug criminalization indeed is futile, but the solution to the drug problem, insofar as there is one, is probably to medicalize it, not to pretend that drug convictions are always irrelevant to character.
Further, most convictions in Connecticut are the products of plea bargaining, which heavily discounts the offenses actually committed. That is, in most cases people with criminal records already have received a pretty good deal from the government.
Yes, the public interest requires that upon their release criminal offenders be able to support themselves by honest work, not by welfare or returning to crime. But honesty includes taking responsibility. Just as people must take responsibility for the employees they hire, the tenants they rent to, the lovers they choose, and the mechanics they let into their homes, people also should take responsibility for breaking the law.
Telling the truth about breaking the law is taking responsibility, and it can be disarming and win sympathy and a chance to show what else one can do.
Government should never obstruct the public’s access to the truth, nor falsify history, as the legislation at issue today would do.
Chris Powell, former managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, is a member of the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.
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