An exasperated Tiheba Bain gave her colleagues on the Council on the Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Record a stern reminder Tuesday morning: “A lot of people think they know what formerly incarcerated people need, but you don’t know until you ask.”
Bain, the founder of Women Against Mass Incarceration, spent a decade in federal prison. That means she knows from firsthand experience the challenges people face when they return home after finishing a prison sentence.
She acknowledged Tuesday that Connecticut has made positive strides in its criminal justice reforms, but said for that progress to continue, lawmakers and policy experts must listen to the voices of people who have been directly impacted by the state’s policies.
“You won’t know what works until you ask the person that’s been incarcerated. And that’s what’s missing from this whole component,” she said. “I should not be the only formerly incarcerated person at this table. I should not.”
Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven and the council’s co-chair, agreed and said she is open to adding more council seats for people who have been incarcerated.
“The people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions,” she said. “That’s why people closest to the pain need to be closest to the power.”
Lawmakers approved the council’s creation last legislative session, watering down the original bill that would have prohibited discrimination in employment, housing, public education, insurance and government programs services based on a person’s criminal history.
This was the group’s second meeting. Similar concerns about representation were raised in the first meeting, in August, when Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield said he was concerned no one from the business community was on the council or its employment subcommittee. That worry has since been addressed, as employment subcommittee chair Marc Pelka invited business and industry leaders to participate in their first subcommittee meeting last week.
“Criminal justice policy, and collateral consequences in particular, affect people across our state, and it’s a reflection of a desire across a diverse range of constituencies to contribute to the process,” Pelka said of the concerns raised over representation, and the interest in featuring a broad array of voices on the panels.
Pelka said further expanding his subcommittee could be difficult, given that they plan on meeting monthly before submitting recommendations to lawmakers in February.
“I think there are other means to bring those voices in,” he said, like focus groups, a planned survey of incarcerated people and public participation in subcommittee and council meetings.
While there are members of the three subcommittees — housing, employment and research — who have been directly affected by the criminal justice system, Porter said, “I think the more we have, the closer we’ll be to a real solution.”
Such firsthand knowledge is important for the council to fulfill its duty to give lawmakers recommendations to reduce or eliminate discrimination based on a person’s criminal record.
“But to have access to the table is just as important,” Porter said. “The folks that are at the table are a voice for you. You have access to us. If you have information, data, research, things you know that can impact the direction of where we’re going for this, then you most certainly should be contributing.”
The council plans to host forums with currently incarcerated people, as well as those who have since left prison. Such meetings will allow council members to hear and consider those concerns when deciding on a list of recommendations to provide to lawmakers next year.
The stakes are high.
Pelka handed out a worksheet at the council’s meeting that stated, of the 554 provisions of Connecticut law that impose such collateral consequences on those with criminal records, 69% are related to employment. Porter, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said the state loses a lot of revenue because of employment-related consequences of criminal convictions.
“We would not have any fiscal problems, in my personal opinion, if these people were released and gainfully employed,” Porter said. “Strong communities are derived from strong families, and until we make sure that every family in the state of Connecticut is viable and strong, financially and otherwise, we will all continue to suffer.”
Members of the research and logistics subcommittee will analyze micro- and macro-level data so the council can define the impact criminal records have on Connecticut residents.
“This type of conversation was not possible, and did not happen, 20 years ago,” said Andrew Clark, the director of Central Connecticut State University’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy and head of the research subcommittee. “We have to take a look at what we did, and how we got to 500 collateral consequences.”
Such policies were passed by lawmakers without an understanding of how they would affect state resources in the years to come, Clark said. The council grappling with that history could lead to a meaningful dialogue that will help state leaders better understand the roles deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation play in Connecticut’s criminal justice system.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about second chances,” Clark said. “It’s always placed on the individual. We have never had the conversation as a society: When are we gonna look at ourselves and give ourselves a second chance, for the problems that we’ve created?”