Criminal justice reform is no longer a controversial issue in the United States with recent polling suggesting that over 90 percent of Americans believe that the current criminal justice system is broken. The poll also concluded that almost three quarters of the population would like to see a decrease in the prison population size. This past December, Congress passed the First Step Act, which as the name suggests, did very little to challenge the status quo.
Despite slight alterations to mandatory minimum sentencing and the realignment of crack and powder cocaine sentencing, the act only affected the federal system, which is responsible for about 180,000 people out of the total U.S. prison population of 2.1 million. Ultimately, federal legislation like the First Step Act will not be what fixes the broken criminal justice system; state legislatures will be critical in creating bills that affect the vast majority of imprisoned people in the United States.
Fortunately there is a wide array of good criminal justice bills being considered this session in Connecticut’s General Assembly. One of those bills is HB 6921, “An Act Concerning Discrimination Based Solely on a Person’s Criminal History.” The bill would make it illegal for employers to discriminate among applicants based on the presence of a criminal record. This past Monday, HB 6921 received a joint favorable vote by the Labor Committee and is now being considered for a vote in the House.
If passed, HB 6921 would be the first bill of its kind in the United States, and it is a bill that is sorely needed in Connecticut. New England has over 5.3 million people with some form of a criminal record. That means one in three people in the region face the immense challenges of reintegrating into society upon receiving sentencing.
Having a criminal record creates obstacles in obtaining basic rights like employment, housing, insurance, and education. There are hundreds of barriers to gaining employment with a criminal record that make reintegration into society extremely difficult. About 9 in 10 employers consider criminal history when evaluating job applications. Because of this, people with criminal records are 50 percent less likely to be hired when compared to applicants with similar qualifications. Without a fair chance at gaining employment after having a criminal history, it is more likely that people will go back through the criminal justice system. In Connecticut, 50 percent of people returned to prison with a new sentence five years after their release. HB 6921 would protect these individuals from discrimination in employment, making it less likely that they receive a new sentence.
Employment is not the only area where ex-offenders face steep obstacles. In the status quo, private landlords reserve the right to deny applicants based on their criminal history, making it extremely difficult to find affordable housing upon reentry. Among many other challenges, housing insecurity and the lack of a permanent address make it difficult to apply for jobs, pay bills, and apply for loans. In recognizing these difficulties, the state of Connecticut has created several programs aimed at increasing housing options available for ex-offenders; however, these programs have been created almost exclusively for people on parole or probation. HB 6921 would make it illegal for landlords to deny housing applications based on an applicant’s criminal history, and thus would help those who are most at risk for returning back to prison.
Another area that is often overlooked when considering discrimination based on criminal history is insurance. Life insurance companies view criminal records as a signal of a “high-risk lifestyle,” making it easy for companies to deny policies or associate high premiums with policies for people with criminal records. Many people with criminal histories even have to wait years before applying to receive life insurance to secure a shot at receiving a good policy. Connecticut citizens, no matter their criminal history, deserve the right to affordable insurance.
HB 6921 has received a joint favorable report and is waiting to be voted on in the Connecticut House of Representatives. You can find and contact your legislator here.
Grace Whittington is a student at Yale University in New Haven.
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