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Second chance for formerly incarcerated at top of Latino agenda

By Bill

For Latino legislators and advocates of criminal justice reform, one of the most important issues before the state’s General Assembly this year is how to remove the “invisible punishment” of a persistent criminal record which plagues the re-entry into society of the formerly incarcerated.

 What is wending through the legislature, starting at the Judiciary Committee, is an effort to recast a clean slate measure that failed to gain passage last year due to questions about the bill’s details. Among the language being refined is which crimes would be eligible for expungement and the length of the required crime-free or look-back period before any criminal records are automatically sealed.

The biggest issue said state Sen. Gary Winfield (D-New Haven), Judiciary Committee chairman, “is that everyone seems to have that one thing they do not want it to apply to and when you add them all up the question becomes what are you actually doing anymore.”

The New Haven Democratic leader added, “Writing it is a balancing act of making it expansive enough to have real impact and limiting it enough to get it passed.”

Second-chance legislation is  not an exclusive Latino issue, but historically there have been racial disparities in incarceration rates and consequently in the number of formerly incarcerated people who are impacted by the “collateral consequences of a criminal record.” Nonwhites are more likely to find barriers to obtaining decent housing and fruitful employment, according to those seeking second-chance legislation.

These activists, which include former inmates as well as political leaders, argue that a second-chance procedure will be cost-effective, improve public safety, enhance family life and benefit workforce development.

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“Clean slate legislation would help a huge portion of our population re-enter our communities,” said Rep. Chris Rosario (D-Bridgeport), who is of Hispanic descent and is a deputy speaker of the House and a former chairman of the legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus.

Those people who have completed their incarceration and have stayed out of further trouble should be able to eventually re-enter the population “without the stigma” of their criminal record, the Bridgeport Democratic leader said.

As of February 1, the state Department of Correction’s institutions held 3,285 Hispanics or 26.5 percent of the inmates. Hispanics comprise about 17 percent of the state’s population.

Eventually, said state Rep. Brandon McGee Jr, chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, “95 percent of those incarcerated, people we know, are returning home and are struggling to make a living.”

Nearly 70 percent of the formerly incarcerated will be convicted of another crime within five years of their release and half will be sentenced to prison again, according to a 2012 DOC study.

However, according to McGee, people who have served their time behind bars and find stable housing are less likely to contribute to the recidivism rate thereby improving public safety and reducing prison population and costs.

The Hartford Democrat was a speaker at the recent Voices of Justice Symposium. Held at the Lyceum this daylong program focused on the “collateral consequences associated with a criminal record conviction in Connecticut and was organized by the Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Opportunity and Equity in collaboration with the BPRC and the Office of Policy and Management and with the support of several non-profit organizations such as the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the Tow Foundation as well as the City of Hartford,

The keynote speaker was Pennsylvania state Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), who spearheaded gaining  bipartisan support which lead to the passage of the nation’s first clean slate act in 2016. The Pennsylvania system has served as a model for a dozen other states considering second-chance measures.

In Pennsylvania, after ten crime-free years, an individual’s lower-level offenses are automatically sealed and those with higher offenses can go to a judge to seek relief. During this act’s first year, 30 million criminal records were sealed, Harris said.

The Philadelphia Democrat said that criminal justice reform is “the civil rights issue of our time and “one of the watershed moments in politics.”

Although some panelists at the symposium were former offenders, including at least two people who served time for murders and said that felonies should be covered by a clean slate act, the likelihood of this happening with bipartisan support is slim, Harris said.

Harris advised that this is a critical time to get something done because President Trump is talking about criminal justice reform and this factor will provide cover for Republicans who support second-chance legislation.

However, the state representative added, there is no perfect time and there has to be a willingness to compromise. He wanted a shorter look-back period but was willing to accept ten years to get something done. “There is no perfect time,” Harris said, adding, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”

Werner Oyanadel, Latino and Puerto Rican Policy director for the CWCSEO, said legislators should not look at clean slate bill as partisan but a public safety bill.

Criminal justice reform is not the only priority for Latino legislators. There is interest in legislation regarding housing and a “multiple of things” according to Rep. Geraldo Reyes (D-Waterbury), vice chairman of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

There is an interest in getting more Latinos appointed state judges, Oyanadel said. “We have a lot of people ready for the bench,” the CWCSEO director said.

Issues such as affordable housing affect everyone but especially Latinos, Rosario said, and conversely “all issues related to economic development are Latino issues.”

Another priority was cited by state Rep. Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven), who also a  deputy speaker of the House and a Hispanic. “We are going to address the issue of Puerto Rican evacuees as a result of the earthquakes,” the New  Haven Democrat said.

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