connecticut politics

Justice Bills Aimed at Reducing Racial Inequality in Conn.

connecticut state capitol
NBC Connecticut

Connecticut lawmakers are looking to reduce racial inequalities in the state’s criminal justice system and curb gun violence through several bills that have been approved by legislative committees this year.

The proposals include erasing many criminal convictions that disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic residents compared with whites; attempting to make jury pools more diverse; and expanding the state’s “red flag” law on seizing guns from people who are a danger to themselves or others.

Here is a look at some of this legislative session’s key criminal justice bills, which await final approval by the General Assembly:

ERASING CONVICTIONS

Supporters of this year’s “Clean Slate” legislation say it could be one of the session’s most impactful bills, potentially helping thousands of people who face difficulties finding work and housing because of criminal convictions.

The bill calls for automatically erasing misdemeanor convictions seven years after guilty findings and certain lower-level felony convictions 10 to 12 years after guilty findings, excluding family violence crimes and sexual assault offenses. High-level felonies, including murder, would also be excluded.

The legislation would ban discrimination based on a criminal record that has been erased, including in job applications, renting or selling homes, credit transactions and auto and life insurance.

A state report last year on 2019 records showed Black people, who make up 11% of the state’s population, were prosecuted in 34% of all resolved felonies. Hispanics, who make up 17% of Connecticut residents, were charged with 27% of the felonies prosecuted to completion.

“Mass incarceration has had real, ongoing consequences in Connecticut, disproportionately hurting Black and brown communities in our state, and burdening hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents with a criminal record,” said the Rev. Marilyn Kendrix, of North Haven, in testimony submitted to the Judiciary Committee. “Records present barriers to employment, housing, occupational licensing, and higher education.”

The committee approved the bill on a 23-14 vote.

As part of push by state officials this year to legalize recreational marijuana, a bill passed by committee would allow people with marijuana convictions to apply for erasure or receive automatic erasure of their convictions in some cases.

JURY DIVERSITY

Another bill approved by the Judiciary Committee aims to increase the diversity on juries and avoid having too many residents from suburbs, which tend to be largely white, sit in judgment of defendants from cities, which have large minority populations.

The proposal is based on the report of a judicial branch task force created by the state Supreme Court. The task force noted research shows there is a “significant problem in the exclusion of minorities on juries” across the country.

The legislation would allow legal permanent residents who are not U.S. citizens to serve on juries. It also would allow people with felony convictions to serve as jurors without having to wait seven years before doing so under current law.

The bill would also require that the number of jury pool members from a town within a judicial court district reflect the percentage of the judicial district population that town comprises. Court officials also would have to keep data on jurors’ racial demographics.

GUN SEIZURES

In the state’s continuing efforts to reduce gun violence, the Judiciary Committee has approved a bill to expand Connecticut’s gun seizure law to allow relatives and medical professionals to ask judges to order people’s guns be taken away.

Connecticut’s 1999 “red flag” law was the first in the country to allow judges to order someone’s guns seized upon evidence and probable cause they are a danger to themselves or others. Current law allows only prosecutors and police to ask a judge to issue a “risk warrant” to temporarily seize a person’s guns.

The bill would add relatives, household members, intimate partners and medical professionals, such as physicians and psychiatrists, to the list of people who would be allowed to request a risk warrant from a judge.

Supporters of the bill say it would save more lives and avoid cases where families seek law enforcement help but police do not act. Opponents say it would open the door for gun seizures based on the word of people with an ax to grind, including spurned lovers, and without the law enforcement investigation required under the current law.

The current law and bill both entitle someone whose guns are seized to a court hearing within 14 days to see if the seizure order should continue.

OTHER LEGISLATION

The Judiciary Committee also passed bills that would ban police from executing no-knock warrants, offer new parole opportunities to people sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for crimes they committed before turning 25 and restrict the use of isolated confinement and restraints in prison.

The Public Safety and Security Committee, meanwhile, has approved legislation that would extend to Waterbury the anti-violence program Project Longevity that is running in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven.

The panel also passed a bill that would require state police to expand statewide a pilot program on crisis intervention when dealing with people with mental health or substance abuse problems and referring them to treatment programs instead of arresting them.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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