Craig Fishbein, John Kissel, Steven Stafstrom and Gary Winfield sit in a room in Hartford's Legislative Office Building, conversing after a meeting.
(Left to right) Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford; Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield; Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport; and Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, converse after a Judiciary Committee meeting held on Jan. 25, 2023, in Hartford. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

After six months of committee meetings, public hearings, closed-door negotiations and floor debates, the Connecticut legislature adjourned earlier this month, having passed a flurry of bills on criminal justice while setting the stage for the work ahead next year.

“I think that we continue the path of trying to move forward in terms of being more progressive,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “There was always a push in a progressive direction, but accomplishing multiple things wasn’t always going on in a way that it is going on now.” 

Officials advanced bills addressing police interrogation, parole eligibility and prosecutorial accountability, while falling short on bail reform, modifying sentences for legalized cannabis offenses, and ending sex offense registration requirements for people retroactively added to the registry. 

“I think we saw the legislature take some really positive steps forward on issues that people that have been impacted by the criminal legal system face,” said Gus Marks-Hamilton, a campaign manager with the ACLU of Connecticut. “And over the course of the session, we’ve seen that there’s a lot more work that needs to be done as well.”

A common theme during the session was compromise. It’s an ideal that Rep. Steven Stafstrom, the Democratic House chair of the Judiciary Committee, believes was necessary given the ideological diversity of the legislature.  

“I have folks who … are not as progressive on criminal justice reform as I am, or frankly, I wish they were, and so you have to recognize that. You have to recognize where the votes are,” he said, adding that Connecticut has been recognized as a national leader on criminal justice reform.

Earlier this year, Republicans raised alarm about an increase in commutations, or the shortening of an individual’s sentence, leading Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont to issue a pause and to the introduction of failed legislation to give lawmakers more say in the process. Meanwhile, a bill that sought to end routine strip searches was reduced to a study after Democrats said there wasn’t enough support to get it passed in its original form. 

“I’m tired of having to compromise on what we want, every single year,” said Barbara Fair, a founding member of Stop Solitary CT, the organization that campaigned around the strip search legislation and supported commutations. “The baby steps to justice, incremental changes that really, in effect, maintain this system.”

The needs of state residents were urgent, added Christina Quaranta, executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance, and “we didn’t have time to compromise or to wait.”

Lawmakers and advocates now move into the legislature’s off-season, where they will likely mull over what to prioritize next year. Until then, here are some of the bills that passed and others that didn’t:

Bills that passed

Clean slate: House Bill 6918 makes technical and clarifying changes to the state’s “clean slate” initiative, which was supposed to go into effect earlier this year before a delay was announced. Clean slate aims to automatically erase the criminal records of people seven years after the date of a conviction for a misdemeanor or 10 years after the date of a conviction for certain felonies if they have not been convicted of other crimes. 

The bill adds certain motor vehicle violations to the list of offenses eligible for erasure, while under certain circumstances ruling out DUI offenses. It also makes ineligible people convicted of a family violence crime on or after Jan. 1, 2000, in addition to people convicted of serious firearm offenses. 

The bill requires that by the start of next year, the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection will post and maintain on its website the list of offenses eligible for expungement. And it allows for someone who believes that their records should have been erased to submit information to the department and for the agency to make a determination. 

Officials have promised a full roll out of clean slate by the end of the year, and Stafstrom said he has confidence that the state can now meet that goal with the passage of the bill.

ID cards: House Bill 6875 fixes loopholes in a 2017 law requiring the Department of Correction and the Department of Motor Vehicles to provide state ID cards or driver’s licenses to people being released from prison.  

It mandates that, with available funds, the two departments ensure that a person receives an ID card by the time of their release unless the person notifies them in writing that they don’t wish to obtain one, or if they’re ineligible. 

Several months prior to the individual’s release, the agencies must prepare and provide access to the materials needed for the card. It also establishes a requirement for department officials to submit to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee an annual report with data on the total number of ID cards issued by each correctional facility, among other information. 

Parole eligibility: Under current law, minors cannot serve life without parole. Further, the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles has discretion to consider parole for people incarcerated on or after Oct. 1, 2015, and serving sentences of more than a decade for crimes they committed before turning 18, as long as the individual has already served a bulk of their incarceration for the corresponding charges. 

Senate Bill 952 increases the age from 18 to 21, a move that experts and advocates see as further acknowledgement of the developing brains of young adults.

It also changes the eligibility from people incarcerated on or after Oct. 1, 2015, to people sentenced on or before October 1, 2005. 

Police interrogation: Senate Bill 1071 considers an admission, confession or statement to police inadmissible or involuntary if it was obtained through deception or coercive interrogation tactics, such as depriving a person of their physical or mental health needs, or using or threatening physical force. 

It also carves out additional protections for children by expanding the definition of deception and coercion to include lying about evidence, misrepresenting the law and making false promises of leniency.

Pre-arrest diversion: House Bill 6888 mandates that state officials develop a plan, which advocates say already exists, for the mandatory pre-arrest diversion of low-risk children — those who have committed a minor crime, such as simple trespass or breach of peace, for the first or second time. Pre-arrest diversion is the process of connecting a person with certain programs or outside assistance as an alternative to an arrest.

The bill also increases membership on the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee by adding three people with experience in the system and two tribal members, one from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the other from the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut.

Additionally, the Judicial Branch must review and update plans for the transition of all children in the Department of Correction’s custody to the custody of the Judicial Branch.

Prosecutorial accountability: Senate Bill 1070 requires each of the 13 state’s attorneys to appear annually in front of the Criminal Justice Commission to publicly testify about certain case level data — including arrests, arraignments and demographics of people being prosecuted.

Randy Cox: In the aftermath of Randy Cox’s injuries under the supervision of the New Haven Police Department, House Bill 6873 requires the state’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council to develop a model policy for the use of seatbelts on people during transport and to establish a disciplinary process for officers who violate the policy, which could include revocation of their license. 

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 1062 — a bill also proposed during the 2022 legislative session — instructs officers to request emergency medical services for people both in direct contact with them or in their custody. It exempts officers who make a “reasonable determination” that an individual isn’t experiencing an emergency medical condition or medical instability, as well as those who know a medical professional arrived at the same conclusion in the last 24 hours. 

Strip searches: Senate Bill 1196 states that when the Department of Correction transfers a person from one correctional facility to another, the agency must notify immediate family members and victims of the crime the individual was convicted of. 

It also requires the DOC to solicit bids to obtain body scanning machines that would be used to limit strip searches and conduct full-body X-ray screenings — similar to the technology used in airports. 

An earlier proposal would have raised the standard for correctional officers to perform strip searches on incarcerated people from reasonable suspicion to probable cause that an individual has contraband —  and require correctional officers to submit to their supervisor for approval a document outlining the necessity for a search. 

Bills that didn’t pass

Bail reform: House Joint Resolution 261 sought to amend the state Constitution to allow courts to deny bail to people they consider a safety risk. Under the current Constitution, courts can deny bail to someone convicted of a capital offense. But the state repealed capital punishment in 2012. 

The proposal received some bipartisan legislative support but was opposed by prosecutors, public defenders and the bail industry, who felt that there wasn’t enough discussion among stakeholders about any drastic change to the current system.

It’s likely that the resolution will resurface in the future, as is typical for ambitious legislative proposals. During a recent press conference, House Speaker Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said there was a need for more education around the topic. Stafstrom said he plans to make the resolution his top priority going into the next session.

Constitutional amendments must pass through the House and Senate with three-fourths majority support in one legislative term, or a simple majority in two successive legislative terms. It would then have to garner majority support among voters. 

Cannabis cases: House Bill 6787 would have required sentencing courts to modify or throw out the sentences of people convicted of cannabis-related offenses — such as possessing less than or equal to four ounces — that have since been legalized.

An earlier version of the bill also would have ended the prosecution of any pending marijuana-related cases if the activity being indicted is now decriminalized. Lawmakers eliminated this provision after the Division of Criminal Justice said that all of the pending prosecutions had been cleared.

Compassionate parole and commutations: House Bill 6738 sought to allow for a panel under the Board of Pardons and Paroles to consider and grant compassionate release during a major disaster or an emergency declaration by the president of the United States covering any part of the state, or an emergency declaration issued by the governor — unless a person was convicted of certain serious crimes. 

The bill was held up because another provision, which sought to address Republican concerns about an increase in sentence commutations, was subject to dozens of proposed changes by Senate Republicans who complained that they weren’t properly consulted by the House. It would have codified into state law the Board of Pardons and Paroles’ current commutations policy, which lawmakers could have then changed as they saw fit. Currently, the board has independent decision-making authority over the policy. 

Sex offense registry: Senate Bill 1194 would have ended sex offense registration requirements for people who were convicted of a sex crime prior to the 1998 expansion of the registry and haven’t reoffended since. The beneficiaries of the proposal were retroactively added to the registry despite never being aware of or agreeing to those terms. 

The bill sailed through the Judiciary Committee and the Senate with bipartisan support, with lawmakers describing it as a matter of humanity and due process. It also reached the House floor for debate. But during the discussion, Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, stormed out of the chamber over her opposition to the legislation. She expressed concern that the bill would put victims and survivors of violent sex crimes in harm’s way, despite how much sex crimes vary and data showing how people who have committed sex crimes exhibit slightly lower recidivism rates than those who haven’t.

Democratic leadership ended the talks and didn’t vote on the bill. It didn’t come up again before the session adjourned. 

Jaden is CT Mirror's justice reporter. He was previously a summer reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune and interned at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He received a bachelor's degree in electronic media from Texas State University and a master's degree in investigative journalism from the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.