On many religious calendars, springtime is a season of renewal. During Passover, Easter and Ramadan, we celebrate, among other things, God’s commitment to both justice and human flourishing. This session, Connecticut’s legislators have an opportunity to demonstrate a similar commitment with the passage of S.B.1019, better known as Clean Slate. It was successfully voted out of the Senate on May 18, and now awaits House consideration.
Each year across the nation, over 600,000 people are released from state and federal prison and another 9 million cycle in and out of local jails. Criminal records – even the record of an arrest that did not result in a conviction – haunt them for the rest of their lives. While demanding that formerly incarcerated people rebuild their lives, the state of Connecticut discriminates against them forever for having a criminal record, no matter how old or how minor the offense. It does this through 559 rules barring them from enjoying the foundations of a dignified human life such as housing, education, and meaningful work.
The Board of Pardons and Paroles’ petition-based pardons system is the only relief currently available to formerly incarcerated people. People can apply for a pardon three years upon release for a misdemeanor and five years after a felony. It is a long, inefficient process that often requires legal assistance, all of which discourages participation. Over 10% of Connecticut residents, approximately 360,000 people, are eligible for a pardon, yet between 2016 and 2019, the Board pardoned an average of 626 cases per year. The Board would need 577 years to clear its backlog at that pace!
Clean Slate would automate this process for the simple cases. S.B. 1019 is a five years or fewer bill: After remaining crime-free for a period of time post-conviction, the state would automatically seal the records of those whose convictions resulted in a sentence of five years or fewer, excluding convictions for sex crimes and family violence. It would leave the Board of Pardons and Paroles intact to handle more complex cases, as well as provide additional training for board officials.
Formerly incarcerated people are not the only ones who have a slate that needs to be wiped clean. Our lawmakers must undo the evils of mass incarceration they wrote into law.
Proponents of Clean Slate, myself included, often advocate for the bill on the grounds that, once people have paid their debt to society, we ought to offer them a second chance. It is a convincing framework because it appeals to one’s sense of justice and mercy. Debt’s a tricky thing, though. This framework is limited because it obscures the unfairness and racism endemic to the criminal legal system. We cannot solely talk about people’s mistakes and their debt to society when, in policy and practice, the law promotes racial inequality.
Take drug enforcement. In a race-neutral system, wherever there were equal rates of illegal drug use and sales across demographics, enforcement outcomes would be proportionate with each group’s share of the population. Social scientists have demonstrated that illegal drug use and sales are more or less equal among Black and White people; yet in Connecticut, Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for having marijuana than White people.
In a 2016 Connecticut Mirror analysis of marijuana arrests from 2011 to 2014, in all but one town, Black people were overrepresented among marijuana arrests. In New Canaan, for instance, Black people accounted for 47.5% of those arrests despite being only 1% of the city’s population. Connecticut’s prison population reflects these racist patterns despite the declining prison population. While Black only constitute 12.2% of the general population, they are over 42% of the prison population. Indeed, nearly half the Black men in Connecticut have a criminal record. That is not justice; it is biased policing and incarceration.
We must pass a strong Clean Slate bill because formerly incarcerated people deserve a new chance at life. We must pass S.B.1019 because it would begin to repair the harms of a decades of inequality under the law. We must pass this bill because, in a representative democracy, none of our hands are clean when public officials write and enforce unjust laws. It would be a clean slate for us all.
Dwayne David Paul is the director of the Collaborative Center for Justice, a Hartford-based Catholic social justice organization sponsored by six communities of nuns.