Mothers and wives of loved ones who have spent time in prison, and the formerly incarcerated themselves, gathered outside the Capitol on June 7 to celebrate.
In the previous 48 hours, the House and Senate had passed a bill that would limit the Department of Correction’s use of solitary confinement, a victory decades in the making for community members who have long fought to end the practice. Stop Solitary CT called a rally to implore the governor to sign the bill.
“This has been a huge criminal legal system session,” Claudine Fox, the ACLU of Connecticut’s interim public policy and advocacy director, told the crowd. “This has been a huge session in recognizing that people are people, regardless of how they got there or why they’re there.”
In the first full session after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis in May 2020, Connecticut lawmakers passed a slew of bills aimed at reforming the state’s justice system.
They passed a measure that automatically clears certain convictions from a person’s record if they stay crime-free for seven or 10 years. They approved a bill that curtails the Department of Correction’s use of solitary confinement. They gave final passage to a measure that makes it free for the incarcerated to call their loved ones. They expanded the definition of domestic violence to include “coercive control,” heeded a task force‘s recommendations and attempted to diversify the state’s jury trials and broadened the offenses people can ask the court to vacate if they committed those crimes because they were a human trafficking victim, among other things.
“I don’t think there’s a piece of the criminal justice process that we didn’t touch this year in some way, shape, or form,” said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. “The tough-on-crime era and the failed war on drugs has left a lasting scar on our state, and we are righting some of those wrongs by what we did this year.”
Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and marches across Connecticut and the nation raised awareness of the need for systemic reform, Fox said. Justice reform advocates used that momentum to push harder for their respective bills this year, demanding lawmakers deal with complex, emotional issues like criminal record erasure, the over-policing of Black and brown communities and counting the incarcerated in the legislative districts where they are from, rather than where they are locked up.
“I think there were some pretty difficult conversations that happened in the House in the Senate, and they were all naming the roots of systemic oppression, and so people were unapologetic in addressing that, for the most part,” said Fox.
Republicans debated many of the bills for hours on the House and Senate floors, questioning the wisdom of taxpayers’ paying for prisoners’ phone calls, whether certain crimes they deemed violent should be eligible for automatic erasure and, most often, how the various measures would affect victims of crimes.
“I’m saddened by the lack of attention to victims,” said Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. “The victims don’t have a voice … it’s incumbent upon us to stand up for them.”
Throughout the session, Democrats reiterated that incarceration itself is the punishment, not the decades of lost opportunities denied to people because of their criminal records long after they served their time.
Here are some key criminal justice bills that passed, passed with changes or failed during the 2021 legislative session.
Bills that passed
Prison gerrymandering. For years, the NAACP had pushed to end prison gerrymandering in Connecticut, filing a lawsuit in 2018 and lobbying for the bill this year, arguing that the time to end the practice is now because the redistricting process will be completed this year.
In past years, prison gerrymandering bills died early in the legislative process. This year, the bill passed the House and Senate within a week of each other, with bipartisan support.
Passing that bill is a huge symbolic victory for the roughly 9,000 people in prison or jail, Fox said, because it restores humanity to those who are locked up by recognizing that they have families and hometowns outside of the prison or jail where they are incarcerated.
“It’s this idea of humanizing people that are often discounted and not seen as living bodies with feelings,” said Fox.
Sentence modifications and drug-free zones. Another major criminal justice measure that got bipartisan support and little, if any, debate was an omnibus bill that expanded prisoners’ eligibility for sentence modifications by broadening the parameters under which incarcerated people can directly petition the court without having to get permission from a state’s attorney. The measure would allow people serving seven years or less to bypass getting a prosecutor’s blessing. Those who were sentenced to prison for any length of time after a trial — a rare occurrence, since most cases are handled through plea deals — also would not need to go through a state’s attorney.
Also in that bill is a provision that drastically reduces the scope of laws enhancing penalties for drug crimes that occur within drug-free zones. Currently, possession or sale of drugs within 1,500 feet of school zones, day care centers and public housing projects can result in a more serious penalty.
“It’s an equity issue,” said Alex Tsarkov, executive director of the Sentencing Commission, which recommended the change. “The zones are too large to serve as any kind of functional deterrent, because at 1,500 feet these zones blanket entire cities.”
The measure reduces the size of these zones to 200 feet. The last time lawmakers considered changing the drug-free zone statute was 2013, Tsarkov said, when House legislators debated the proposal for a few hours before tabling it.
“This legislature has been looking to reduce the size of drug-free school zones for years,” Stafstrom said. “Getting that across the finish line, so that we’re not imposing higher penalties on someone just because they live in a city, is a massive accomplishment.”
The bill passed unanimously in the House and had only three ‘no’ votes in the Senate.
Clean slate. One of the marquee justice bills passed this session was Clean Slate, a measure that would automatically erase certain misdemeanors and low-level felonies if a person stays conviction-free for a certain number of years.
Many Republicans thought the bill went too far.
“Those low level, nonviolent misdemeanors — the small amounts of marijuana, you know, 10 years — I’m good with that,” Fishbein said. “But they took it way too far when you’re automatically erasing felonies without the individual having to go before the Board of Pardons of Paroles and say, ‘I’m different. It was a one-off. I’m doing stuff in my community. I’ve changed my life.’”
Others favored the existing process. “I’d rather give more resources to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, who do a thorough job in assessing risk and making some of these making these determinations, as opposed to just waiting for the clock to run out and then the records get erased,” Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.
Some advocates, meanwhile, were disappointed the measure didn’t make more crimes eligible for automatic erasure.
“Clean slate means you clean the slate. It doesn’t mean you pick and choose between people,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. Winfield said he would try in future sessions to add crimes to the list of those eligible for automatic erasure so there are fewer carve-outs.
Bills that failed or passed with changes
As much systemic change was wrought by legislators this session on criminal justice matters, there were a number of measures that didn’t make it through both chambers or were significantly changed before they were passed.
Recreational marijuana. Perhaps the most-known justice bill that lawmakers didn’t pass both chambers: recreational marijuana legalization. Democrats released the bill late in the process, and Republicans threatened to filibuster to run out the clock. The Senate approved the bill. The House didn’t call it before the regular session ended.
Democrats pitched cannabis legalization as a chance to make partial amends for the over-criminalization and over-policing of Black and brown communities that bore the brunt of the negative effects of the war on drugs.
“This was supposed to be the session about equity,” Winfield said. “I think it’s a missed opportunity, because there actually was an opportunity to get it done. There was an opportunity within the boundaries of the equity session to have the conversation about equity.”
Compassionate parole. Another justice bill approved by the Senate that didn’t get a vote in the House was a measure that would have expanded prisoners’ eligibility for release through compassionate parole.
The existing law on compassionate release is extremely narrow. Elderly and sick members of the incarcerated population filed lawsuits during the pandemic to try and get out of prison so they wouldn’t catch COVID-19 while they were locked up. Few were successful due to the Board of Pardons and Parole’s limited statutory authority.
Winfield vowed to bring the proposal back in future years, even if its impetus loses momentum because there isn’t an ongoing pandemic threatening the lives of people in prison or jail.
“The compassionate release bill will come back every session that I’m here,” he said. “The perspective of those who think we shouldn’t do it is wrong. Period.”
Juvenile justice. One bill that sailed through both chambers with bipartisan support after compromises to the original bill: the recommendations made by the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee. The wide-ranging measure makes it so that children younger than age 10 will not be arrested (the minimum age of criminal responsibility is currently age 7); requires the Judicial Branch to come up with a plan to detain children under 18 whose cases have been transferred to the adult system and who are being held pretrial, and charges the Department of Children and Families to create an oversight plan for an educational unit to improve services for incarcerated children.
“When it comes to our young people, more often than not, it’s bipartisan or nonpartisan,” Kissel said on the Senate floor before voting for the bill. “We all want what’s best for the generations coming up behind us.”
The JJPOC makes recommendations to lawmakers every year, suggesting how the state can better rehabilitate troubled children whose lives become ensnared in the law. This 2021 bill, Kissel said, was “rather modest this year compared to past years, but still heartfelt, well thought-out initiatives.”
But the measure passed by the House and Senate was a compromise that differed from what was voted out of the Judiciary Committee. Legislators removed a provision that would have automatically erased certain juvenile records, opting instead to require the Court Support Services Division to give a notice to young people on their 18th birthday so they can petition the court for erasure.
Another major change involved the Department of Correction’s use of chemical agents on children held at adult prisons. The original measure would have required the DOC to stop using pepper spray on children in its custody; the bill lawmakers ultimately passed, however, converted it to a study, requiring the DOC to report back to the legislature next year on its use of chemical agents on youth under age 18.
On the House floor before the vote, Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, a member of the JJPOC, said she was frustrated that legislators had approved Clean Slate for adults but not automatic record expungement for kids. But she was even more troubled by continuing to allow the DOC to use chemical agents on children, a “tremendous error in judgment” by allowing a state agency to use a practice she likened to a war crime.
“I really feel like we’re going backwards in time,” said Porter.
She voted against the bill.
“What broke me was the fact that we would put back language to torture our kids. And they’re majority Black and brown kids that’ve been told all their life, they ain’t shit, they ain’t gonna be shit, and they don’t matter,” Porter said after the vote, pointing out that what they passed out of committee would have banned the use of chemical agents on children. They had the votes then. “And when it got to the House floor, we reinstated state-sanctioned torture on children in the state of Connecticut.”
Other members of JJPOC were disappointed by the changes made to their original recommendations, which included prohibiting the suspension and expulsion of kids in pre-K through second grade, and putting kids with lived experience who have spent time in jail or juvenile detention centers on the oversight committee; both provisions were taken out as part of the policymaking process.
“We had a chance this legislative session to make it all about equity, all about pushing the justice agenda for Black youth,” said Christina Quaranta, executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance. And yet, she said, “we removed lots of pieces of the JJPOC bill that really could have pushed forward what justice looked like for kids as young as 7 in Connecticut, and we just chose not to.”
Stafstrom said he wished the JJPOC bill could have been stronger, but there is a “political reality” that there is only so much that can be moved through both legislative chambers in a session.
“There’s only so much time and oxygen,” Stafstrom said, particularly over the last week of the session as legislators rushed to pass a bill to legalize marijuana.
Even with all that was passed this year, advocates and legislators have vowed to come back next year — or as soon as the upcoming special session — and keep up the fight for equity.
“We’ll be back, on everything from chemical agents to little kid school suspension, to making sure we’re not arresting 10-year-olds,” said Sarah Eagan, the state’s Child Advocate. “So more persuasion is needed. That’s the lesson: more persuasion is needed. People have reservations, and we have to address them.”
CT Mirror reporter Adria Watson contributed to this story.