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Clean slate: Connecticut’s new path to automatic pardons

In late 2010, Devon, a Hartford man, went on a string of armed robberies. Just 24 years old at the time, Devon, who is being identified by only his first name to protect his identity, robbed a liquor store, a jewlery store and set up his own friend to be robbed at gunpoint. 

His spree came to an end after the jewelry store heist when he was arrested and charged with first-degree robbery, first-degree conspiracy to commit robbery, criminal use of a firearm and carrying a pistol without a permit. After sitting in a jail cell for 15 months awaiting his trial and its outcome, Devon was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the robberies. 

However, seven years into serving his sentence, Devon was granted parole and was released in June of 2019. Since then, Devon, now 35 years old and a father of five, has turned his life around. In addition to working for the city of Hartford, he does consulting work for the Department of Children and Families as a peer-mentor for other fathers and talks at speaking engagements about the mistakes he’s made and how he has overcome them.

Now, as his final step in triumphing over the mistakes of his past life, Devon is seeking an absolute pardon. If granted, his criminal record in Connecticut will be erased entirely.

Devon is just one of the estimated 70 to 100 million Americans, about one in three adults, with a criminal record. A designation that poses significant barriers to nearly all facets of life. Called collateral consequences, limitations imposed on individuals with criminal records can affect employment opportunities, housing options, voting rights, eligibility for state benefits and the ability to hold a professional license.

However, while individuals with criminal records can apply for a pardon to clear their criminal records, Connecticut joined a growing list of states in making the pardon process automatic after a certain period of time. These so-called “clean slate” laws have been passed in seven states since 2018 and are being actively campaigned for in several others.

“I’m seeking a pardon to further job opportunities, to make a better life for my children and to show the people where I’m from in my community, that if you strive and you work hard enough and you change your life that you can be rewarded,” Devon said. “It’s not a promise, but that it can’t work out for you.”

A Growing Movement

In 2021, Connecticut became the fourth state in the country to pass legislation that included an automatic erasure of certain criminal convictions, following in the footsteps of Pennsylvania, Utah and Michigan.

In addition to Oklahoma and Colorado passing clean slate laws this year, there are active campaigns in seven other states to pass similar legislation. Oregon, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia and New York all have active grassroots support for automatic record expungement.

It’s part of a growing movement by advocacy organizations across the country to offer formerly incarcerated individuals a second chance through state legislation. While lawmakers and advocates negotiate the contents of expungement legislation, one such advocacy group, the Clean Slate Initiative (CSI), has created a set of minimum criteria state laws must meet to be considered a legitimate clean slate effort. 

The CSI standards include automation of record clearance upon eligibility, the inclusion of arrest records, the inclusion of misdemeanor records and a recommendation for laws to include eligibility of at least one felony record. As of right now, seven states, including Connecticut have passed legislation that meets CSI’s criteria.

Prior to passing the clean slate bill, Connecticut offered two pathways through which people could have their criminal records erased. The first option, which people with virtually any type of conviction on their record are eligible for, requires individuals to submit an application to be pardoned and attend a hearing before the Board of Pardons and Parole. 

For non-violent offenders, when there is no victim interest in the case, a more expedited option is available. Eligible individuals may submit an application, but do not need to appear for an in-person hearing before the Pardons Board.

When Gov. Ned Lamont signed Senate Bill 1019 into law in June of last year, a third pathway to a pardon was created.

Under the new law, which will go into effect on January 1st, 2023, people with certain criminal records will have their records expunged automatically without having to apply for a pardon or appear in front of the Board. Those convicted of a misdemeanor will be eligible for automatic erasure seven years after the date of the conviction.

People with class D or E felonies, or unclassified felonies with prison terms of five years or less on their records, will be eligible 10 years after the date of their conviction. Certain crimes, such as sexually violent crimes or offenses related to family violence are not subject to automatic erasure under the legislation. 

“Enacting this legislation adds to Connecticut’s accomplishments as a national leader in criminal justice reform,” Gov. Lamont said at the time of the bill’s signing. “It also addresses well-documented collateral consequences of a criminal conviction and lowers barriers for people seeking to move on with their life and past their involvement with the criminal justice system.”

Opposition to erasure

The law was subject to pushback from conservatives in the state legislature. After the passage of the clean slate bill, the Connecticut General Assembly Conservative Caucus penned an opinion piece expressing concerns about the scope of the bill. The group’s main issue is that after a person’s criminal record is erased, they could legally purchase and own a firearm, even if they were a violent offender.

State Rep. Craig Fishbein (R-90), the Vice Chair of the Conservative Caucus, said that while he is not opposed to former offenders getting a clean slate, he is opposed to the automatic nature of the erasures and thinks former offenders should still need to appear in front of the Board of Pardons and Parole.

“What this law did was it circumvented that process and is automatically erasing these crimes off of people’s records and that is not, in my opinion, appropriate because we are all individuals,” Rep. Fishbein said in an interview. “The issue before the Board of Pardons and Parole that they traditionally ask about is, ‘What have you done in the meantime?’ ‘Are you involved in your community?’ ‘Have you or are you doing volunteer work?’ ‘Do you recognize the harms that may have come from your crime?’” 

Another concern, shared by Rep. Fishbein and the rest of the Conservative Caucus, is that the clean slate law also automatically wipes away crimes motivated by a basis against the race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability of an individual, also known as hate crimes. 

“Why is it inappropriate for someone to have to go to the Board of Pardons and Parole to explain why they painted a swastika on someone’s door,” Rep. Fishbein said. “Now, we are saying to those individuals, ‘it doesn’t matter, we’re just gonna erase it.’ I don’t think that’s appropriate public policy.”

Although Rep. Fishbein is opposed to automatic erasure generally, he is in favor of the automatic expungement of some minor marijuana-related crimes. 

“Those possessions of marijuana for a small amount, you know the roach in the ashtray, somebody got a misdemeanor conviction on their record as a result of that,” Rep. Fishbein said. “I’m comfortable with that after seven years, make it go away, why should you jam up the Board of Pardons and Parole with all those cases?”

A Hundred Times Worse

After Shelby was convicted of battery when she was 22 years old, she couldn’t find a housing provider that would accept her with a criminal record. She lived in her mother’s basement for four years before she was pardoned and was able to get her first apartment at 26 years old.

Upon completion of their prison sentence, the formerly incarcerated are tasked with having to rebuild their lives from scratch. For many, the first step is finding a place to live. If a formerly incarcerated person doesn’t have a support system, like friends or family to take them in once they are released, they are released into the streets. 

Of course, they’ve been out of a job for a period of time and likely don’t have the money to secure housing. However, even if they did, finding housing with a criminal record is no easy feat. According to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative, the formerly incarcerated are 10 times more likely than the general public to be homeless. 

 In addition to being unable to find housing, Shelby struggled to find an employer willing to hire her with her criminal record.

“I couldn’t even get warehouse jobs,” Shelby said. “I’m a female, I wouldn’t consider myself like a bulky female and I’m not really into deadlifts and stuff like that, it’s not for me, but I was desperate. I needed a job, so I’m thinking a warehouse will hire me. I couldn’t get a job at the Amazon warehouse. There are several other jobs I wasn’t able to get, so I felt extremely discouraged.”

While 66 percent of managers at companies that have hired people with criminal records have indicated that the quality of work by those employees is comparable to those without criminal records, most hiring managers aren’t seeking them out. According to a study by the Society for Human Research Management, just five percent of managers and three percent of human resource personnel actively recruit people with criminal backgrounds.

Further research has found that 82 percent of managers reporting that the value workers with criminal records bring to an organization is as high as or higher than that of employees without records. Despite the findings that have shown individuals with a record can be assets to an employer, studies have shown that having a record reduces employer callback rates by 50 percent.

As a Black man who grew up in the rough neighborhoods of Hartford, Devon was familiar with the side effects of being a member of a marginalized community. However, having the scarlet letter of a criminal record only added to his struggles.

“In the world I come from, in the community that I’m in, I’m used to rejection, even before having a criminal record, it just makes it a hundred times worse though,” Devon said. “Just dealing with rejection, dealing with ‘no’s. But I understood when I came home from jail that the world wasn’t going to stop for me.”

An untapped workforce

Shortages in the workforce have compelled business leaders to explore new options to fill vacancies in their rosters and the formerly incarcerated population offers a vast pool of workers for employers to tap into. With 87 percent of employers utilizing background checks as part of their hiring process, the unemployment rates for the formerly incarcerated are staggering. 

Of the 5 million formerly incarcerated people across the country, 27 percent of them, or about 1.4 million, are unemployed with more than 60 percent being unemployed one year after being released. Those who are able to find work with a criminal record still earn far less than the general population. According to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated workers earned 53 percent less than the median U.S. worker’s wage during the year they were released.

In 2021, Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, and Craig Arnold, the chairman and CEO of Eaton, created the Second Chance Business Coalition (SCSB) to “address challenges that impact a traditionally unemployed and marginalized segment of our society” by creating a coalition of major companies to hire people with criminal records.

The SCBC was created in the post-Covid-19 economy, presumably in response to widespread labor shortages across the country due to the pandemic. While 250,000 people of working age have died from Covid-19, a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 500,000 more people have disappeared from the workforce entirely due to “long Covid” related illnesses.

In the year since its creation, the SCBC has recruited more than 40 companies as members, some of which are among the nation’s top employers, including AT&T, Microsoft and Lowes. “For all of us who are working to advance second chances, this has been a year of tremendous growth and energy,” Dimon said in a press release. “Our member companies have rolled up their sleeves to tackle a range of key issues as they work to create opportunity for more Americans.”

In Connecticut, the Whitcraft Group, a manufacturer of aircraft engine components, launched a first-of-its-kind work-release program earlier this year that offers incarcerated women the opportunity to learn skills in a growing industry and pays them for their labor.

“These individuals were given a sentence. They served their time. When the sentence completes, they should be able to go back into society because they served their time and they paid their debt to society, so to speak,” Jaqueline Gallo, Whitcraft COO, said. “But that’s not the way it works. They are often serving a life sentence because they’re not able to re-enter society in a meaningful way because they can’t get a job — a meaningful career.”

"Do You Have a Criminal Record?"

In mid-August, Tiana Hercules, a local criminal defense attorney and Councilwoman for the city of Hartford, organized an event to help people seize the opportunity to criminal have their criminal records erased years earlier than the State’s clean slate legislation would allow for. The pardons clinic was hosted by Hercules’ marijuana retail startup, Lady Jane, and sponsored by UConn School of Law and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The clinic provided volunteer attorneys to help walk people through the process of applying for a pardon. Additionally, the volunteers interviewed the pardon seekers to help them write an essay to convey to the members of the Board of Pardons and Parole how they have changed their lives and why they are worthy of a pardon. While many law firms charge upwards of $3,000 for assisting with a pardon, according to Hercules, the clinic provided the service for free. 

“For many who are seeking jobs and struggling because of their criminal record, paying for a lawyer to do it is not really within reach,” Hercules said. “By doing this free clinic, we’re hoping that we can really help folks who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access this. It really goes without saying, but maybe a lot of people don’t realize the huge opportunity that’s presented when you do have a pardon,” Hercules said. “That’s the only way by which you can say ‘no’ to the question, ‘do you have a criminal record?’ Because, essentially, it’s as if those things never happened.”

Although the new Connecticut law mandates that record expungement be automatic seven to 10 years after the date of conviction, depending on the offense, the clean slate legislation actually makes the timeline to receive a pardon longer.

While the other pathways available in Connecticut aren’t automatic, they do offer a faster opportunity for the erasure of a criminal record.

Those with misdemeanor convictions can apply to the Board of Pardons and Parole three years after the date of conviction for a pardon. People with felony convictions may apply five years after their conviction. However, there are restrictions. Pardon seekers cannot have any pending charges or other open state or federal cases, a nolle within the previous 13 months of the application and cannot be on probation or parole.

Hercules said she doesn’t think it hurts for people to try to get pardoned as soon as they’re eligible, especially as they wait to see how the new law will be enacted. Hercules also added that she believes now that record erasures will be automatic, it will only help one’s chances of being pardoned earlier if they apply.

“The hope is that, for those that fall into that category [for automatic erasure], even if they’re applying to this process, they’re likely will be expedited review and granted because the board is going to look at it and know that they’re going to qualify for this new process,” Hercules said. “So I think getting in the system and having it your stuff reviewed can increase the chances of it getting pardoned sooner.”

The clinic was Hercules’ first time organizing and hosting such an event, but is hoping to continue and expand on it in partnership with the UConn School of Law.

“I had brought the idea to the [UConn] law school to adopt this model as a kind of ongoing clinic where community residents could come to the law school, be matched with a volunteer attorney and they could, on an ongoing basis, assist folks with the pardon process,” Hercules said. “I’m hoping that the law school, sees the model, sees the impact or the positive outcomes and wants to adopt this as part of the curriculum because it also gives potential law students an opportunity to actually work up close and personal with clients where you really don’t get the opportunity throughout law school.”

A brighter future

While Connecticut’s clean slate law is set to go into effect in the new year, it may be subject to some tweaks by the state’s legislature. Prior to the bill’s passing, the General Assembly Conservative Caucus attempted to add amendments to the bill seeking to remove the automatic erasure of some felony convictions and also hate crime convictions. They are likely to revisit adding amendments to the bill in future legislative sessions, according to Rep. Fishbein.

Gov. Lamont also expressed concerns about some of the felonies that were included for automatic expungement in the law’s current iteration and the effect it could have on who gets issued gun permits. He called on the legislature to address the concerns in future sessions. 

However, while the automatic record expungement legislation remains controversial among lawmakers, the positive impacts having a clean slate could have on the lives of former offenders is not up for debate. After receiving a pardon, doors opened up for Shelby and the erasure of her criminal record has proved to be life-changing. 

Prior to getting her pardon she was denied housing and struggled to find an employer to hire her with her criminal record. Since being freed from the chains of her past mistakes, Shelby is now in her second year of law school and works with the Full Citizens Coalition, a Connecticut non-profit that works to improve the lives of current and formerly incarcerated individuals.

“It’s like you’re almost like a zombie walking because even though you have dreams and hopes and aspirations and you’re willing to do the work, you’re not getting anywhere because it’s like a roadblock,” Shelby said of having a record. “Since my expungement, I’ve been able to get better employment opportunities and I’ve been able to give back to the community.”

While Shelby has already received her pardon and embarked on a journey through a new path in life, Devon continues to go through the pardon process and is hopeful he gets an opportunity to prove that he’s come a long way since the mistakes of his youth.

“To get a pardon or the opportunity to speak in front of the Board, even if [I don’t get pardoned], but just to get the opportunity to show that I have grown, I have changed, it’d be amazing for me,” Devon said. “Not just for me, but for my children, for my family and for my community.”

For Devon, a pardon would complete his over a decade-long arc from a violent criminal to an honest, hard-working family man that volunteers his time to impart the wisdom he’s gained through his mistakes to help guide others in making better decisions.

“This would be the ultimate comeback story, Devon said. “I was told that greatness ain’t always about what you accomplish, sometimes it’s about what you overcome. This would be a huge self-esteem booster for me. It would also be a huge example for my community, and for someone that’s gonna come behind me.”

"Greatness ain't always about what you accomplish, sometimes it's about what you overcome."

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Tom Hopkins

A national, award-winning journalist from Bristol, Tom has a passion for writing. Prior to joining CII, he worked in print, television, and as a freelance journalist. He has taken deep dives into sexual assault allegations by Connecticut professors, uncovered issues at state-run prisons, and covered evictions in the New Britain Herald. He chose to focus on issues based in Connecticut because this is his home, and this is where he wants his work to make the greatest impact.

1 Comment

  1. Jacqueline Polverari
    October 10, 2022 @ 9:57 am

    This is all a great thing however a major population of women are being left behind as always just like the Federal Government. What about women over 65 that have committed a first time non-violent financial crime? This population is being ignored. One woman in particular who is 67, has never committed any crime in her life and made a large mistake and took money from her employer? She laid back every cent prior to sentencing, gave him her house and her car plus all her money. At sentencing the judge appeared to have know her employer and he sentenced her to 10 years in prison at Niantic! If it was a federal crime she would have possibly gotten 2 years at a minimum security camp. She has had COVID, is down to 95 lbs, has so many underlying health issues and is being ignored. She has a family, a home to go to, a job waiting and yet because she doesn’t help anyone earn votes in the election she is being ignored! Yeah, let’s let all the people out so tax payers could pay more in our state while many go on state assistance, become homeless, need employment but they will all be okay because Governor Lamont will take care of them. But the senior citizens who have maxed out of crime and committed financial offenses remain locked up. Oh and she has resources from Evolution Reentry Services in CT for women. But doesn’t get Lamont a vote I guess.

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